The impact of the Dan River coal ash spill

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On the two-year anniversary of the Dan River coal ash spill, Dr. Madeline Schreiber of Virginia Tech’s Geosciences department delivered an open lecture concerning the use of science during a rapid crisis response.

On Feb. 2, 2014 a storm water pipe leaked water and coal ash from a Duke Energy storage pond into the Dan River. An estimated 23 million gallons of water and 39,000 tons of coal ash flowed in the river before the leak was stopped, making it the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Although the leak was stopped and the storm water pipes closed off, large amounts of coal ash remained in the water. In total, only about 3,000 tons of coal ash were removed from the river, leaving at least 36,000 tons behind.

Schreiber explains that because coal ash is composed of mostly silica and unburned carbon, the spill may have many potential threats to the water quality, ecosystems, natural resources, wetland habitats, and organisms.

Government agencies such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted water sample tests to determine the effects of the coal ash spill. In efforts to aid the research, Schreiber received funding from the National Science Foundation’s RAPID program.

Schreiber along with collaborators March Michel and Ben Gill from Virginia Tech, Lou Derry from Cornell University, Brian Williams from the Dan River Basin Association, and Virginia Tech students collected water samples between the dates of early March 2014 until October 2014.

As part of Schreiber and her team’s efforts, they attempted to determine a way to track the remaining coal in the river. Their research focused on Germanium – an element present in coal and coal ash – as a tracer of the remaining ash in the river. Samples collected near pond discharges contained large amounts of trace elements such as Germanium, Arsenic, and Selenium.

While these trace elements were found in high concentrations along the ponds, they became very diluted when in the river downstream. The dilution of these trace elements in the river means the water quality of the Dan River still meets EPA standards.

Although sample tests of the water affected by the spill met or exceeded EPA standards, many scientists and environmentalists, including Schreiber, believe it could take years to determine the long-term impact on the river. Coal ash contains toxic levels of arsenic, selenium, chromium, and mercury. It is possible that over time, these toxic metals could possibly become concentrated in the fishes and birds.

Immediately following the spill, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Division of Public Health released an advisory recommending that people not consume any fish or shellfish collected from the Dan River in North Carolina downstream of the spill site.

“However, the advisories were already in place in parts of Virginia and North Carolina due to high levels of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) in the water,” stated Schreiber. “There is no real need to place a second advisory because people are already warned to not eat the fish for other reasons than the coal ash spill.”

Schreiber points out the importance of knowing that there are many industries in the area that effect the Dan River. Any information revealed by samples must be carefully studied in order to determine the true cause, rather than immediately proposing it is due to the ash spill.