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Duke Energy Dan River Coal Ash Spill Updates: What We Know, What We Need To Know

Duke Energy Dan River Coal Ash Spill Updates: What We Know, What We Need To Know

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Spill first noticed Sunday, spilled through Friday afternoon; site has two ponds on EPA list of 44 ponds nationwide with High Hazard Potential rating. Engineering reports and EPA analysis (included below) detail concerns years ago.

Duke Energy Dan River Coal Ash Spill Updates: What We Know, What We Need To Know

Stormwater pipe draining coal ash into Dan River since Sunday. Still flowing as of Wednesday evening.

On Sunday, February 2, 2014, Duke Energy employees noticed coal ash waste was spilling from one of its coal ash ponds into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina.  Duke did not publicly report the spill until the following day. Initial estimates by Duke were that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash, along with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, had been released into the Dan River as of Monday.  As of February 6, the spillage of coal ash and contaminated waste water had not yet been completely stopped.  

The Dan River ash pond that failed is similar but smaller than four unlined high hazard coal ash waste ponds on the Catawba River and it was part of the same lawsuit triggered by testing and a notice of intent to sue by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and SELC.  The Charlotte Business Journal is reporting that even after the most coal ash debacle Duke Energy is still considering leaving coal ash in unlined ponds on the Catawba River. Former Duke CEO Jim Rogers said last year in an interview with Charlotte Magazine that the utility will ultimately “end up cleaning up” the Riverbend ponds, but Duke officials haven’t said when “ultimately” will be. Incredibly, although Duke's permits required Duke to have a plan to close the Riverbend ash pond 1 year before closing the plant (which officially closed in April 2013), the Duke spokesperson says that Duke has no timetable for deciding whether to remove the coal ash from four high hazard unlined ash ponds on the Catawba River.  As the editors of the Charlotte Observer stated, Duke "should begin, promptly, not only to remedy the leakage we know about at Riverbend, but to avoid the unknown there and elsewhere down the road. There’s no evidence that Dan River was the result of active negligence on Duke’s part. But it’s becoming negligent to wait and hope it doesn’t happen again somewhere else."

Click here for pictures, to read more on what we know, what we need to know going forward, and how this site and incident compare to others in the Catawba River basin.

 Dan River Coal Ash Spill Timeline

News Updates


  • Duke announces they have a temporary fix to stop the flow of coal ash into the Dan River.  The end of the broken stormwater pipe now has its coal ash and water slurry caught and pumped back up into the pond.  Read more here.


  • Charlotte Observer publishes editorial calling for end to waterfront coal ash storage.  Final lines: "There’s no evidence that Dan River was the result of active negligence on Duke’s part. But it’s becoming negligent to wait and hope it doesn’t happen again somewhere else."  Read it here.


  • Duke discovered (i.e., themselves did not know) that the pipe was corrugated metal for most of its length and NOT stronger reinforced concrete like at its end.  Charlotte Observer article here.
  • Duke says they will either cap or remove its coal ash ponds.  No timetable provided.  Riverkeeper says capping is unacceptable and will leave threat of catastrophic failure looming high over drinking water; would not fix problem with unlined ponds, which is a lot of what we have.  Only removal will fix ongoing contamination and failure threat.  CBJ article here.


  • Riverkeeper Sam Perkins spent the day onsite, both on the river at the spill site and 2+ miles downstream, where 6"+ inches of ash blankets the river. As of dusk, the spilling has not been stopped by Duke Energy.  PICTURES AND A PRESS RELEASE HAVE BEEN INCLUDED IN LINKS AT THE BOTTOM! 


  • Duke Energy estimates the spill dumped 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and other chemicals, in addition to 27 million gallons of water laden with metals/chemicals.  Remember, coal ash steeps like tea, and water will be laden with contaminants, though Duke's own sampling protocols have previously failed to sample for contaminants later found in extremely high concentrations.

Only on the afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014, was the public notified of a major spill from Duke Energy's Dan River coal ash ponds into the Dan River.  The spill began more than 24 hours prior and continues to flow into the river.

Many questions continue to develop after a stormwater pipe underneath the retired ponds broke and drained the primary coal ash pond.  A Duke Energy press release a day after the spill said they were still unable to stop the flow out of that pipe.

This is a prime example for why, even if a power plant is no longer burning coal and generating waste, the waste left behind from decades of operation with primitive storage needs to be cleaned up and taken off the banks of drinking water sources.  The Catawba River has four ponds like Dan River's, and in a 29-mile span... with well more than 1 million people who drink the water.  This is why we are so worried about a failure at Riverbend (Mountain Island Lake), Marshall (Lake Norman) and Allen (Lake Wylie) and remain in court with Duke Energy over ongoing contamination and catastrophic failure threats.  Were this to happen immediately upstream of intakes for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gastonia, Mount Holly, Rock Hill, or a number of other drinking water systems, the crisis would be unimaginable.

After the Kingston coal ash disaster in December 2008, the EPA compiled information and ordered studies of coal ash ponds, including those at Dan River.  A detailed summary is provided here:

What Do We Know?

  • First and foremost, that coal ash ponds should not be stored on the banks of our waterways, especially when folks downstream drink and use the water!  Ok, the facts...
  • Located in Rockingham County, near Eden and the Virginia border
  • Began power production in 1949
  • Coal-fired power production ceased in spring 2012
  • Original coal ash pond constructed in 1956 and modified multiple times until current form in 1980
  • Primary pond is 27 acres behind 40-foot dike, secondary pond 12 acres behind 30-foot dike; total storage volume of >1 million cubic yards (664 acre-feet)

Duke Energy Dan River site (coal ash ponds)

  • The two ponds are retired but were permitted to receive and known to contain coal ash and other chemicals (verbatim from permit): fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, flue gas emission control residuals, water treatment, boiler blow down, boiler chemical cleaning wastes, coal pile runoff, stormwater runoff, fire protection, mill rejects, floor and laboratory drains, and drains from equipment cleaning
  • In 2010, EPA listed both ponds as "High Hazard," meaning there was a potential for loss of life and economic catastrophe (44 ponds nationwide were listed, including 12 from North Carolina and four along the Catawba River)
  • Dan River was one of the sites listed by NC DENR when it filed a lawsuit in August 2013 against Duke Energy for coal ash contamination of groundwater and surface water at what made it all 14 coal ash sites statewide (two of the 14 sites were already under litigation after action by Riverkeepers, including the Catawba, and the Southern Environmental Law Center)
  • In the August 2013 filing, Dan River was cited for unpermitted surface water discharges and for groundwater contamination from coal ash, with violations of state standards for antimony, arsenic, boron, iron, manganese, total dissolves solids, and sulfates
  • A 2009 inquiry by the EPA made multiple suggestions for studies and monitoring
  • Duke said it monitored the site monthly, after heavy rain events, and annually
  • Independent contractors performed inspections every five years in accordance with the North Carolina Utilities Commission; there was no regular inspection by state/federal officials
  • Duke's Emergency Action Plan for the site was incomplete in 2009
  • Ponds were unlined, and multiple seeps were identified
  • Tree stumps noted as a concern for stability
  • September 2009 report noted, "two stormwater pipes pass under the original pond and discharge into the Dan River. Notes on historic drawings indicate that these pipes were installed with three feet of cover minimum. Detailed engineering reports and drawings for the original embankment, including records of the original foundation treatment, were not provided as part of this review."

    Duke Energy Dan River site (coal ash ponds) from 2009 report
  • On the afternoon of Sunday, February 2, 2014, Duke Energy identified a broken stormwater pipe underneath the primary pond had broken and was draining into the Dan River
  • Press releases sent out afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014, from Duke Energy and North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR)
  •  Coal ash spills have occurred elsewhere in North Carolina, including at Allen Steam Station (Lake Wylie/Catawba River), Cliffside Steam Station (Broad River), Asheville Plant (French Broad River), and Sutton Plant (Cape Fear River)

What Do We NEED to Know?

  • A lot.
  • How much spilled?  Late Monday night, Duke Energy released an initial estimate of 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and other chemicals, in addition to 27 million gallons of water laden with metals/chemicals.

  • Why was there a delay in letting the public and media know?

  • How is this affecting drinking water downstream?  Danville, Virginia, has more than 18,000 customers immediately downstream.

  • How and when is this spilling going to stop, and how is it going to leave the structural integrity of the dikes/ponds?

And my biggest questions...

  • What chemicals are Duke Energy and NC DENR testing for?  As noted above, not only are there metals associated with coal ash ponds, but a long list of other industrial chemicals.  You don't know what's in the water if you don't test for it.  Duke Energy has even weaseled its way out of having to regularly test for certain metals associated with coal ash (i.e., cobalt, vanadium).
    As we learned in West Virginia, there are a lot of other chemicals that can be associated with a seemingly straightforward chemical spill.  Not only did WV's spill have other chemicals, some were chemicals that the original chemical broke down into (formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen, was most recently identified).

  • Does this mean Duke Energy will finally follow the lead of South Carolina utilities and clean up the waste it has left propped up over our drinking water sources?


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Jan 25, 2017 NC Riverkeeper Report
From the perspectives of 12 NC Riverkeepers, this report discusses how multiple environmental issues pose challenges in the pursuit of clean, plentiful water. Whether you are in North Carolina or downstream in South Carolina, read this report about the state of environmental enforcement.
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Fish Advisories

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Fish consumption advisories have been issued throughout the Catawba-Wateree River basin.  Many of these advisories are the result of testing initiated by Catawba Riverkeeper and confirmed by state and local officials.  For a chart identifying fish types with the applicable advisories for the Charlotte area, click here.   For more information about the fish advisories, click here.

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