The Dan River rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and over its 200-mile run to Kerr Lake crosses into North Carolina and back several times, stitching together the fates of both states.
What happens on one side of the river happens on the other side and downstream. So, as the long-term effects of Duke Energy’s catastrophic coal-ash spill nearly two months ago remain unknown, North Carolina’s neighbors to the north are not in a forgiving mood.
“I’d say most of us are very upset with Duke Energy,” John Gilstrap, the former parks director for the city of Danville, said in an interview this week. “We just don’t understand how this could happen.”
Danville is 20 miles downstream from the power plant in Eden, and the river is the heart of the historic and architecturally attractive city, providing drinking water and recreation. It runs through the very center of Danville, where it is lined with trails and benches in a visual and aural refuge.
On the edge of town, a dirt road winds past a painted sign – “The Islands. Private. No trespassing.” – and crisscrosses a flood plain down to the riverbank. Here 60 acres, including a few small islands in the middle of the Dan River, have belonged to the Winstead family for decades.
The land has been planted with pecans and walnuts – and once adorned with 100 tulips – and on a recent day yellow buttercups bloomed beneath a pair of holly trees. Catfish and bass thrive in the river. Two generations of Winstead children have grown up along the Dan River, exploring the islands, building tree houses, finding shade beneath two pagodas the family built.
On this day, recent snow melt has turned the 300-foot-wide Dan muddy and fast, hiding any signs of coal ash.
Therit Winstead, now 83, grew up in Person County in North Carolina and moved to Danville as a young man. He worked in the city’s engineering department, started a successful tree service, served on the City Council for 12 years and raised five children with his wife, Linda.
“Our children swam here, picnicked,” Winstead said. “We enjoyed it, and so did a lot of people. The public enjoys the fishing – or has in the past. I don’t know how it’s going to be now.”
Holding Duke accountable
The uncertainty is what eats away at Winstead and others along the Dan. Days after the first dingy water reached downstream, he spotted mussels washed up along the shore.
Winstead has seen all of his property flood four or five times. He wants to know what happens to the soil and crops when coal ash washes ashore. What happens when it saturates the truckloads of wood chips spread across the ground for mulch? Others wonder what happens when arsenic from coal ash mixes with tobacco leaf.
Winstead also wonders why Duke Energy hasn’t reached out to the people along the river.
“Several years ago, we cut the wrong trees (on a job). I couldn’t wait to get up with that property owner to work out an agreement,” Winstead said. “I didn’t want him to think we were trying to dodge him. I’m surprised Duke hasn’t tried to contact anyone.”
Gilstrap, the retired Danville parks director, who is now on the City Council, said Virginians want to make sure Duke is held accountable for immediate and long-term problems from the spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater through a collapsed pipe running beneath a basin.
He said Duke’s plan to haul away the remaining coal ash at the Dan River plant within 2 1/2 years of finding a place to put it and securing any permits it needs is too long. A survey conducted a few years ago found Danville residents considered the city’s river district their No. 1 asset – this in a city adorned with 19th-century homes and churches, and the last headquarters of the Confederacy.
“We spent an awful lot of state and local money developing a trail system and parks around the river,” Gilstrap said. “It’s got us all very, very concerned. Actually, it ticks me off.”
On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe visited Danville’s treatment plant and assured its 18,000 customers the water was safe to drink. But the governor said he expected the utility to fully compensate Virginia for any costs it incurs related to the spill. He said Duke officials have assured him they would do that.
Earlier this month, the head of Virginia’s environmental agency said it would hold Duke accountable for any long-term damage that is found.
Duke has said it will pick up the cost of cleaning up the Dan River plant pollution in North Carolina – but expects ratepayers to pay for the cost of moving coal ash from its lagoons in 14 plants into lined and covered landfills somewhere else.
Meanwhile, Virginians are looking for reassurance about the 11 coal ash impoundments in their state.
A call for action
Virginians aren’t feeling entirely helpless. Members of one conservation group whose sole mission is the Dan River took to their canoes and kayaks immediately after the spill and began orchestrating a far-reaching response that will help plot a course.
It was an unexpected call to action for a small organization that has spent its time taking water samples to help make the river cleaner and taking programs into schools.
“We weren’t prepared to deal with a giant coal ash spill,” said Dan River Basin Association program manager Brian Williams of nearby Collinsville, Va. “When I got on the river and saw the magnitude, I realized we needed help.”
The association is doing its own independent lab testing of the water, and it is working with several universities to not only study the river but also use the experience for teaching. Biology students from Ferrum College are creating test habitats in the river. Cornell University and Virginia Tech scientists are working on ways to more closely track the components of coal ash. UNC Greensboro students are looking at how metal contaminants affect invertebrates.
“Getting people on the river – if you love it, you’ll protect it,” is the group’s philosophy, Williams said. “The Dan was consistently getting better. Now this section is contaminated. What do you do? It’s horrible. It’s devastating for an organization like mine.”
Williams’ organization knows the answers are months and years away. Meantime, it’s trying to put out as much solid information as possible for those who use the river or live alongside it.
“We have no idea down the road,” he said. “That’s the thing: Who knows? You can say all day long the water is fine for drinking. Maybe there’s something you don’t know. There’s no way this is not bad.”