But it is just the start of what will be at least a two-year process to clean up the entire mess left by a collapsed pipe at Duke Energy's retired Dan River Steam Station, as well as sites near Asheville and Charlotte.
Abreu Grogan park in Danville, Va., closed April 1 to begin preparing the area for the waste removal project. Vacuum dredging will begin once site preparations are complete, and the entire project is expected to last until late June.
Officials say the park is expected to reopen to the public in July.
Duke Energy crews immediately started working to push back the leftover ash in the pond when the pipe collapsed Feb. 2, but it took nearly a week to stop the spill, which dumped thousands of tons of coal ash into the river.
"We're going to have this dubious distinction of the third largest coal ash spill in the nation, and that's not the distinction you want," said Eden Mayor Wayne Tuggle.
Inspection reports dating back to 2006 obtained by WNCN Investigates show Duke Energy had long-known of potential issues with the pipe. At the time, inspectors recommended using a camera to check inside the pipe for any leaks.
"Coal ash contains toxic elements in substantial amounts" said Dr. David Buchwalter, a toxicologist at North Carolina State University.
Duke Energy has nearly three dozen coal ash ponds in North Carolina, and all of them sit right next to a river or lake; and all of them are leaking.
"Coal ash is the biggest contributor to water pollution in the country," said Dean Naujoks, with Yadkin Riverkeeper.
Duke Energy took responsibility for the Dan River spill and the state immediately began running water tests. Officials say city drinking water is safe, but more potential long term impacts are starting to surface.
"You do worry about crops and the livestock and the aquatic life, and you want to have clean rivers," Tuggle said.
Hundreds of acres of farm land line the banks downstream from the Dan River Spill. Farmers like Jerry Apple use the river for irrigation and still doesn't know if the water is safe to use on his crops; and that uncertainty is an immediate problem as planting season for corn is right around the corner.
"Hopefully it's gone down the river and not going to be a problem, but we don't know that," Apple said.
In addition to lead, mercury and arsenic, the ash also contains selenium, which has been shown to cause mutations in fish. Something river keepers have been fighting for years.
"It's a huge problem, and it's one that's been neglected for a long time," Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Peter Harrison said.
WNCN Investigates joined the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as inspectors collected dozens of fish from the John H. Kerr Reservoir, one of five sites the state is using to test. Biologists will compare fish that haven’t had time to be affected by possible contamination with fish they will catch and test again in a year.
"Some of the mid-size [fish], those could potentially be consumed by people," said DENR Environmental Specialist Jeff DeBerardinis. "The smaller stuff is representative of what wildlife would consume."
In the lab, the fish are classified, sorted and weighed. They are then fileted or blended, and tested for any metals that are found in coal ash -- metals that experts say may stay in the river forever.
"There's not a whole lot that can be done treatment wise once these materials are in the environment," Buchwalter said.
While impacts continue to be evaluated, the spill has prompted the state and environmental groups to start taking a closer look at all of Duke Energy's ponds.
"Drinking water, public safety -- there's a lot at stake," said Matthew Starr, with Neuse Riverkeeper. "It's not just an environmental problem."
With 14 coal plants across the state, North Carolina is one of the top 10 producers of coal ash in the country. At the 37 ash impoundments at those plants, 29 dams surrounding the ponds have been given a high-hazard rating for the potential environmental damage if they were to collapse.
Click Here to view Duke's dam ratings
WNCN Investigates tried several times at several locations to shoot video at the coal ash ponds, but Duke Energy would not allow a crew on its property.
Despite claims the company knew about the leaks at its ponds, Duke Energy insists that it "has complied with its existing water discharge permits."
"Duke has done a really good job of downplaying the impact these coal ash ponds are having," Naujoks said. "Unfortunately Duke has had a lot of favoritism from DENR -- shielding them from enforcement."
So far, the state has issued 11 enforcement actions against Duke Energy since the Feb. 2 spill.
In March, DENR issued a violation notice against the power company for illegally draining two of its ponds at the Cape Fear Steam Station. DENR estimates Duke pumped 61 million gallons of coal ash into the Cape Fear River.
Duke claims it was routine maintenance and part of its permit, but the state disagreed.
"Coal ash has forever enjoyed this sort of exalted status where it's sort of above the law, and I think it's a testament to the political power of those generating it and disposing of it," Harrison said.
DENR secretary John Skvarla said that is simply not true. "I'm incredulous that anybody thinks we have not taken action on this," Skvarla said at a legislative meeting.
The nation is no stranger to the long term effects of such a spill as seen on the Dan River, though. In 2008, the nation experienced the largest coal ash spill in history when an impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant failed, coating Kingston, Tenn., with more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash.
While that spill sparked an outcry of concern, it never led to nationwide federal regulation. Rather, in North Carolina, DENR is left to supervise the storage of coal ash.
"Here we are five years later, and we've still failed to prevent these very preventable disasters from happening," Harrison said.
In emails from 2011 released by the state on March 28, WNCN Investigates found that Duke Energy asked DENR how it can keep certain documents from the public eye. Duke requested that its Emergency Action Plans and inundation maps be exempt from public records laws.
A DENR employee wrote that the sort of information that Duke wanted to keep private "could be used by terrorists to determine where they might do the most damage."
In response to the release of those emails, Duke issued a statement saying, "While we are not commenting on the details of specific email exchanges, our practice is to keep emergency plans related to all major critical energy infrastructure (such as nuclear plants, fossil or hydro plants and transmission facilities) confidential."
The emails highlight what watchdog groups say is a growing concern about the relationship between Duke and the agency tasked with regulating the utility.
"It is frustrating when the environmental agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment continues to downplay threats to public health and the environment," Naujoks said.
Harrison added, "The people making the waste and disposing of the coal ash have so much political influence over the regulators ... It's a very failed system."
Despite claims that DENR and Duke may have had a relationship that is too cozy, DENR secretary John Skvarla maintains the state has done everything in its power to mitigate the issue.
"I'm incredulous that anybody thinks we have not taken action on this," Skvarla said. "Our goal was to get to the clean up issue as quickly and expeditiously as possible."
The agencies' relationship is now the center of a federal criminal investigation. Prosecutors demanded any documentation that shows payments or other items of value that DENR employees received from the power company.
The state and Duke have stayed tight lipped, and neither will comment on the investigation beyond saying that they are cooperating.
But with so many known problems, it begs the question: Why haven't these ponds been cleaned up?
"[The environmental group's] only acceptable remedy was to dig them up, move them to lined landfills and cover them," Skvarla said. "We're talking 14 facilities and 32 coal ash ponds. I can assure you it's not that simple."
The state also admitted it has had the authority to stop the leaks.
"I mean if we really wanted to do that, we could do that," said Tom Reeder, with the Division of Water Quality. When asked why they wouldn't want to, he replied, "Because our actions are always based on potential threat to the environment. That's what we've been saying all along.
"If you have a small seep and it's [minimal] compared to your actual permitted discharge than we can add it to your permit."
Reeder said the state will simply expand Duke's existing permit to include the seeps. If the seep reaches the river, DENR said it is diluted to levels that are approved by state standards and not a threat to the environment.
But in a meeting with state legislators, a Duke Energy spokesman stated the company is working on a solution.
"Simply put, we are taking another look at those plans ... we will eventually close the ponds, but it is a long process," a Duke spokesman said.
The state wanted one year to assess the best way to address the ponds, but a citizens lawsuit has changed that plan.
"DENR and the secretary have been going around saying, 'We want to clean this up, but we don't have the authority to do so.' The court has now told them, 'You've been misreading the law, you do have the authority,'" Holleman explained.
The Southern Environmental Law Center represented several citizens groups who brought the suit; and on March 6, Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway ordered Duke to take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination at its coal ash dumps.
Ridgeway ruled that state regulators have failed to properly apply state law to the toxic ash pits. It was an outcome many had been pushing for, and an outcome watchdog groups say may never have come to light without the Dan River disaster.
"In many ways this has been a blessing because it has brought attention," Naujoks said.
Harrison added, "If the state continues to fail in its responsibility to enforce those laws, then we will do it ourselves."
But on April 3, Duke Energy appealed Ridgeway's ruling. Duke Energy said it can't immediately clean up the pits as required by Ridgeway's order, and that it needed more time or else the cleanup "will impose significant material costs on Duke Energy and its customers as well as potentially affect its ability to generate power."
Duke further requested a stay pending the outcome of its appeal based on the grounds that Ridgeway's order "reversed a long-standing administrative interpretation and application of the North Carolina groundwater protection rule ... to the coal ash ponds located at Duke Energy's power plants in North Carolina."
Duke also said Ridgeway's order "will have effects beyond the Ash Ponds throughout the State of North Carolina and, based upon an analysis by DENR, will materially impact 700 sites overseen by the Division of Water Resources and 2,020 sites overseen by the Division of Waste Management."
Regardless of the appeal, Duke said it is committed to cleaning up coal ash ponds at its Asheville Plant, Dan River Steam Station and Riverbend Steam Station.
"These actions were set forth in a March 12, 2014, letter from Duke Energy's Chief Executive Officer to the Governor of North Carolina and will be unaffected by either the appeal or the imposition of a stay," Duke said.
On April 7, the state Environmental Management Commission joined Duke in its appeal of Ridgeway's order.
The Environmental Management Commission is a 15-member commission appointed by the governor, the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker. It is tasked with adopting rules for the protection, preservation and enhancement of the state's air and water resources.
"We have 100 million tons of coal ash that is contaminating rivers, surface water, groundwater all over the state," explained Naujoks.
In a letter written to McCrory, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good wrote out the company's short-term and long-term plans for its ash basins. The plans mention closing some plants, and moving ash at others to lined landfills.
Some environmental groups think there is a better way for Duke Energy to clean up the ash.
SELC has filed suit against two of the major utility companies in South Carolina -- Santee Cooper Power and South Carolina Electric and Gas -- for pollution coming from their ash ponds.
"There are three major utilities in the Carolinas. Two of the three have agreed to clean up their coal ash," Holleman said. "Duke is the only one that has refused to."
Santee Cooper Power Vice President Pamela Williams explained, "Every situation is unique, but we benefit by living in close proximity to the customers who can use this ash."
As part of the agreement, Santee Cooper Power is recycling ash stored in its ponds, turning the waste material into a valuable resource.
Santee Cooper is currently removing ash at the Jefferies Generating Station, where one of seven of the utility company's ash ponds is located. The pond there is 169 acres and holds 1.7 million tons of coal ash.
Each day tractors are on site digging up the ash, sifting out organic matter and shipping it off to recycling centers.
That's where the SEFA Group comes in, bringing with it new technology that allows the company to recycle wet ash found in ponds.
"A lot of people just dispose of the ash, but from our perspective it's a tremendous resource," explained Jimmy Knowles, vice president of research and development at SEFA.
SEFA has also worked out a deal to locate its operations on South Carolina Electric and Gas and Santee Cooper's properties so the supply of ash is never far.
"Even though it's not hazardous, it needs to be handled properly," Knowles said. "So if we are able to beneficially use the material to produce concrete or use in plastic or paints -- things like that -- then it's not available in the biosphere to cause any harm in any ecosystem."
The EPA studied recycled coal ash and approved it has a beneficial use. But before it is used, it has to be broken down.
SEFA uses elaborate technology to burn off contaminates like carbon and make the ash usable for construction. The new material is known as fly ash.
When fly ash is added to concrete, it makes the material stronger and more durable.
"A bridge that might last 50 years; when it's enhanced with fly ash, that same bridge might last 100 years," Knowles explained.
From the SEFA plant, the fly ash is shipped to local concrete mills. When mixed with concrete and sand, it is known as flowable fill and is used in South Carolina roads.
WNCN Investigates found it is also used in some North Carolina construction projects. Last year, 19,500 tons of recycled fly ash were used in constructions projects across North Carolina. It is also required to be used in some bridge construction, especially in the western part of the state where bridges are salted more often because of winter weather.
Removing the ash from ponds is not a cheap process.
"We're estimating the total cost of [digging up all seven ponds] at about $250 million," Williams explained.
However, it's a solution that many environmental groups and power companies can agree on.
"Importantly to us, it also benefits our customers," Williams said. "For Santee Cooper, this is the most cost effective way for us to deal with the byproduct."
Duke Energy said it reused 67 percent of ash it produced last year. When asked if any of the 100 million tons of ash sitting in ponds across the state would be recycled, Duke responded, "Duke Energy is continually looking for appropriate beneficial reuse opportunities for coal ash."
"For example, Duke Energy recently invited the City of Charlotte to enter into a due diligence process to determine if the Charlotte-Douglas Airport is a suitable location to relocate the ash from our retired Riverbend plant to enhance future economic development opportunities at the airport."
Environmental groups said they just want the ash ponds cleaned up as quickly as possible.
"The state of South Carolina is going to be eliminated from the threats and dangers of coal ash ponds, and we feel the people of North Carolina deserve the same," Naujoks said.
Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.
Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.
Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.More>>
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DENR released more than 13,000 pages of public records after the massive coal ash spill on Feb. 2, 2014, on the Dan River.
Below, you can browse and search those documents. If you find anything that you believe deserves to be looked in to further, you can contact the WNCN Investigates team at email@example.com.