DANVILLE, Va. — State officials said any potential long-term effects on the Dan River have been minimal in the five years since a breached pipe at a Duke Energy plant spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river.
About 25 million gallons of ash-storage pond water also entered the Dan, which snakes back and forth eight times across the state line between Virginia and North Carolina.
Coal ash, generated from burning coal, is usually stored at power plants or placed in landfills.
Dwight Flammia, public health toxicologist for the Virginia Department of Health, said fish consumption advisories for the Dan remain the same as they were before the spill.
The health department has reviewed results from fish-tissue analysis by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality annually, he said.
The health department advises against eating flathead catfish 32 inches or longer from the Dan River, due to high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic compounds formed as waste in industrial processes.
Sediment and water column monitoring by the VDEQ has been discontinued, but routine monitoring will be conducted at stations that are part of the department’s 2018-19 plan, said Ann Regn, VDEQ spokeswoman.
“Fish tissue collection continues and those data are forwarded to VDH for their review regarding fish consumption advisory decisions that are the purview of VDH,” Regn said.
In the year after the spill, state and federal agencies and Duke Energy conducted emergency response monitoring to look for effects to aquatic life in the Dan River. Water results taken by the DEQ at four river and two reservoir locations in Virginia’s portion of the river showed no violations of water quality standards, according to the 2018 Chesapeake Bay and Virginia Waters Clean-Up Plan.
Drinking-water testing by the VDH in Danville, South Boston and Clarksville showed that all finished water met state and federal standards, according to a section of the plan focusing on the coal ash spill and state response.
Results from the 2014-17 monitoring program also found that sediment levels remained low and that the ash “continues to be mixed and covered by native sediment to non-detectable levels.”
“Water-column dissolved metals remain below water quality standards for both aquatic life and human health protection,” according to the cleanup plan.
In addition, fish-tissue analysis from 2014-17 showed no concerns of metal in fish associated with coal, according to information in the plan.
“For fish taken in the region of the river where there is an existing consumption advisory due to legacy mercury contamination not associated with the Duke Energy release, the need for the advisory is confirmed,” the plan notes.
Flammia said officials did not expect to find elevated levels of toxins in fish immediately after the spill in 2014.
“If there were enough of a release into the river, it would take years before we start seeing it in the fish,” Flammia said.