The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services warned people downstream of the Duke Energy coal-ash spill on the Dan River to avoid contact with water and sediment from the stream, and not to eat any fish or shellfish from that section of the Dan.
The warning comes 10 days after a security guard at Duke’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden found that a pipe running under a 27-acre waste pond had collapsed, allowing 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water to drain out. The spill turned the river cloudy for miles.
On Wednesday afternoon, the public health division of DHHS released two health advisories related to the spill, saying, “a potential hazard exists immediately downstream of the release,” and that people should avoid recreational contact with water and sediment from the river downstream of the spill, and not touch submerged or floating coal ash or ash that has washed up on the riverbank.
Direct contact with the pollution could cause skin irritation, the warning said, and any skin exposed to the water or sediment should be washed with soap and water. People also should not eat any fish or shellfish collected from the river downstream of the spill, the warning said.
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The Dan is a drinking-water source for several cities and towns in Virginia, as well as Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina. Testing by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources since the spill has found arsenic, copper, iron and aluminum in the river at levels above state standards for surface water quality. Gov. Pat McCrory has said it appears that the water is safe to drink.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has sued Duke to try to force it to clean up toxic coal-ash pits like the one involved in the Feb. 2 spill. Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the group, said Wednesday that the spill, and Wednesday’s health warnings, could have been avoided if Duke had voluntarily moved the coal ash away from the stream or DENR had pushed the company to do so.
“We’ve been saying for some time that these primitive coal-ash sites were disasters waiting to happen,” Holleman said. “And unfortunately, a disaster has occurred on the Dan River and … now this public resource is off limits to the public. You shouldn’t even touch the water, and you shouldn’t eat the fish. It’s a very sad day for our state, for DENR and for Duke Energy.”
DHHS is working with other agencies to collect fish downstream of the spill and will evaluate the data from fish samples as it becomes available, its announcement said. The department will also monitor data about the risks of coming in contact with the water.