Coal Ash Spill in North Carolina Endangers Wildlife

Toxic coal ash spills into the Dan River. Photo by Waterkeep Alliance
Toxic coal ash spills into the Dan River. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance
Thousands of North Carolina residents living around the Dan River woke up last week to a disaster in their backyard. Millions of gallons of sludge from a retired Duke Energy coal-fired power plant spilled into a river that supplies drinking water for North Carolinians and Virginians. It took almost a full week to get the leak under control as an estimated 82,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of basin water polluted the river: enough to fill 73 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The Dan River coal ash spill is the third largest in U.S. history. Coal ash is particularly pollutant and a byproduct of coal power generation. Tests of the water in the Dan River revealed levels of copper, aluminum, iron and arsenic (a carcinogen), which were all above safe levels.  With such a huge influx of highly toxic chemicals, it will take a very long time for the ecology and wildlife of the Dan River to return to a healthy and safe level.  This beautiful river, once enjoyed by wildlife and humans alike, will need a long recovery before it is safe to swim, fish, or drink the water.

The threat to wildlife

One of the more important species affected by this spill is probably not an animal you think about every day: bugs. Insects and microorganisms are the backbone of any ecosystem and their health can affect species all the way up the food chain. Jenny Edwards, program manager for the Dan River Basin Association, explains why these little critters are so important:

River otters are found in many North Carolina rivers. Photo via USFWS
River otters are found in many North Carolina rivers and are threatened by spills like the one in the Dan River. Photo via USFWS

We are really concerned about the impact it’s going to have on wildlife starting toward the bottom of the food chain, which is the macroinvertebrates, or the bugs. Without those bugs in the river, no other life on the river is possible because those bugs feed the fish and the fish is, of course, what the heron and the bald eagle are hunting

As metals and toxins accumulate in the bugs and fish tissues, they are passed up the food chain, infecting species that rely on the river for food such as catfish, herons, deer, raccoons and bald eagles. People often fish in the Dan River for catfish and species like the bald eagle are an iconic part of American culture.  They are all directly put at risk by this coal ash spill.

Speak out to hold Duke Energy accountable

Tell North Carolina Governor McCrory to take action to protect wildlife and communities from coal ash and to hold Duke Energy accountable for this devastating spill. Here are suggested tweets:

Hold @DukeEnergy accountable for the Dan River coal ash spill and endangering wildlife! @PatMcCroryNC

We need @PatMcCroryNC to stand up for clean water & wildlife – hold @DukeEnergy accountable for Dan River spill