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Polluted Dan River Gets Federal Attention

February 14th, 2014
What to expect if you dip your hand in the Dan River. (Gerry Broome, AP Photo)

What to expect if you dip your hand in the Dan River. (Gerry Broome, AP Photo)

In early February 2014, a security guard at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station found that a pipe running under a 27-acre waste pond had collapsed, allowing 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water to drain out. The spill turned the river cloudy for miles.

Two health advisories have been released, warning that the spill creates a potential hazard, and that people should avoid contact with water in that portion of the Dan River—don’t touch the water, don’t touch the ash that washes up on the shore, and don’t eat fish or shellfish caught in that portion of the river.

Oddly, Governor Pat McCrory says that the water is safe to drink, despite testing that shows higher-than-safe levels of arsenic, copper, iron, and aluminum.

According to an article published in the News & Observer, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) had previously sued Duke to try to force it to clean up the toxic coal ash pits, and that if Duke had done it, this environmental and health hazard could have been avoided.

“We’ve been saying for some time that these primitive coal-ash sites were disasters waiting to happen,” Frank Holleman [senior attorney for SELC] said. “And unfortunately, a disaster has occurred on the Dan River and …now this public resource is off limits to the public. You shouldn’t even touch the water, and you shouldn’t eat the fish. It’s a very sad day for our state, for DENR and for Duke Energy.”

Federal Attention

The problem is so bad that the U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the state environmental agency in charge of regulating Duke Energy. A federal grand jury is expected to meet in Raleigh March 18-20, 2014.

How did things get to this point? Right now, there is a lot of finger pointing, and of course everyone denies wrong-doing. Let’s hope our questions are all answered in March.