Looking back: Feb.4 marked 5 years since coal ash spill that contaminated Dan River

39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into river from storage pond in North Carolina

DANVILLE, Va. – Feb. 4 marked five years since the coal ash spill in North Carolina that contaminated the Dan River.

Nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the river from a Duke Energy storage area.

Coal ash is what is left when coal is burned to generate power. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the ash can contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can pollute waterways.

Five years ago, you could dip a paddle in the river in Danville and come up with a clump of coal ash.

Danville Water and Waste Water Treatment Director Alan Johnson says the spill was a learning experience for his department.

"We're currently looking at evaluating tying in the old Dan River reservoir that's up at the Schoolfield site. We're looking at tying that in to our raw water system here," Johnson said.

During a big rain storm when the river water is muddy, or in the event of contamination like the coal ash spill, the reservoir could be used as a temporary alternative water source.

"We'll utilize that clean water that's in that reservoir and treat that instead of treating the very turbid, muddy water that's in the raw water source at the time," Johnson said. "So we could save chemicals, save some cost, treat better water, and stay consistent with that reservoir."

He says the coal ash also created a better seal around the filters at the treatment plant, which helped filter out more particles in the water.

The spill did have some negative impacts, though.

Danville Parks and Recreation Communication Specialist Russel Carter says Abreu Grogan Park was unusable while the coal ash was cleaned up.

"Immediately after (the spill), we floundered a little bit, but honestly, soon after it presented a lot of opportunities for us to really promote the river," Carter explained.

That promotion has had a positive impact.

"We've actually seen a lot of good trends. A lot of people are actually getting on the river and doing our programs," Carter said.