"You can't clean this up": Coal ash spill is destroying a North Carolina river

Four days after it started, the leak is still ongoing

Published February 6, 2014 8:05PM (EST)

It took over a day for Duke Energy to report that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash had spilled into North Carolina's Dan River, an incident that came after years of warnings that the company's 31 ash ponds could cause an environmental disaster. Now, four days later, the company is still struggling to plug the leak.

In the meantime, the Associated Press reports, the river's been turned to sludge:

An Associated Press reporter canoed downstream of the spill at the Dan River Steam Station and saw gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.

Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.

"How do you clean this up?" he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his paddle. "Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can't clean this up. It's going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected."

Environmental regulators in North Carolina say they are still awaiting test results to determine if there is any hazard to people or wildlife. Coal ash is known to contain a witch's brew of toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coal Industry Duke Energy North Carolina Water Safety