The Dan River was running fast and high when Mark Bishopric dipped his paddle into the muddy water and we began a 2-mile float downstream to the site of the coal ash spill.
The ghostly-white bark of sycamore trees lined the banks, and we quietly drifted along, the peace of the morning broken only by the cry of a kingfisher. I understood why landowner William Byrd named this stretch of rolling hills near the Virginia border “The Land of Eden.” You can paddle for miles and see no houses, no factories, only an occasional otter slide down the high banks.
The beauty of the Dan, Bishopric said, is that much of it flows through countryside. It crosses the North Carolina-Virginia line eight times as it meanders from the Blue Ridge Mountains northeast to Kerr Lake in Virginia. Our trip covered five miles near Eden, the largest town in rural Rockingham County.
Propelled by the swift current, we made good time. But when our canoes slid beneath the bridge on N.C. 14, we stopped. Ahead loomed a brick behemoth with four towering smokestacks: Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station, where on Feb. 2 tens of millions of gallons of coal ash laden with metals poured out of a holding pond through a faulty pipe and into the river.
The serenity was broken, and Bishopric turned somber.
It’s been a month since the spill and people who depend on the Dan – for drinking water, recreation and farming – are growing increasingly frustrated that the ash has not been cleaned off the river bottom.
“We know it’s damaged the wildlife, we know that it’s damaged the things that live and thrive in the river,” said Bishopric. “... What we don’t know is the clean-up plan.”
I asked Bishopric, 59, to be my guide in part because he co-manages Three Rivers Outfitters, which rents canoes. But more importantly because he knows the river and has deep roots in the community. Bishopric served as president of Spray Cotton Mills until it closed in 2001, and now owns a small hydroelectric company. He is a board member of the Dan River Basin Association.
Like others in this once-booming textile and tobacco region north of Greensboro, Bishopric loves the Dan. For hundreds of years, it was the region’s lifeblood, a river highway to the coast, fueling power plants and textile mills. It is still a source of drinking water for communities along the way.
Sludge beneath the river
As we approached the shuttered steam station, we heard the river thundering over the dam.
We paddled quickly to the safety of the shore. There, a sign warned: “... A potential hazard exists immediately downstream. ... The North Carolina Department of Public Health is recommending that people avoid recreational contact with water and sediment.”
We forged ahead in protective boots. Bishopric carried our canoes through the woods, around the dam, over a trail of deer tracks and back to where the river resumed, a torrent of white froth. Scratched into the clay were 3-foot-high letters cursing Duke Energy.
Though the plant quit operating in 2012, two nearby holding ponds are filled with decades of accumulated coal ash, the dust-like residue left when coal is burned to generate electricity. The ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium and other potentially toxic metals.
Now the river does, too.
We paddled beside a high dike to the storm water pipe that broke and caused the spill. A yellow containment boom roped off the area, but we could see the end of the 48-inch pipe, now plugged with grout and concrete.
A few more strokes, and we passed a smaller pipe that was in danger of failing, and also was plugged.
Lying unseen beneath us was a coal-ash bar that federal officials estimate is 5 feet thick, 75 feet wide and 15 feet long. Other concentrations could be as far as 70 miles downriver.
In front of us, a graceful blue heron glided above the ripples.
A layer of coal ash
If you didn’t know what lurks beneath the surface, possibly smothering bottom-dwelling mussels and fish, or hurting their gills, you might not suspect anything is wrong with this stretch of the Dan. In the days immediately after the spill, the water looked sickly gray; now it is river-brown again.
Even when we pulled up to a sandbar at the confluence of Town Creek, where Native Americans settled, nothing seemed amiss. Raccoon and bird footprints greeted us.
Bishopric stepped from his canoe and sank ankle-deep. When he lifted each boot from the muck, a layer of black coal ash was exposed about an inch below the surface.
Step by step, coal ash emerged in our footsteps.
Planting season is coming
We ended our trip at Draper Landing, east of Eden, where Walter Johnson’s 45-acre cornfield hugs the shore. The field is a barren tumble of dried stalks and withered cobs. But planting season is fast approaching.
The dilemma for farmers is whether it is safe to plant. Invariably, heavy rains will push the river over its banks and into their fields. Some farmers pump water directly from the river to irrigate their crops.
“There’s an awful lot of toxic chemicals sitting in the Dan River,” said Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, which adopted a resolution Saturday calling for an immediate clean-up of the Dan and removal of 13 coal ash ponds in the river basin.
“As long as the coal ash stays in the water every high water event is going to dredge up everything from the bottom,” Haworth said, “and we’re going to see it on our banks again.”
And on Johnson’s cornfield.
I tracked down Johnson at his sporting goods store a few miles away. He sees a certain irony in what has happened. He worked 15 years at the steam station and probably pumped some of the coal ash into the holding ponds, assuming it would be safely stored.
Now he wonders if the river floods, and the river always floods, will his crops be harmed?
Johnson, 70, grows corn to feed hogs, which he butchers to make sausage. His recipe is so popular, people know him by his nickname, Sausage.
“Ain’t nothing I can do about the river,” he said. “It runs through my property down there, but nobody’s contacted me about any of this. I plan to plant again this year.”
‘It’s been four weeks’
Audie Land’s property sits on a ridge nearby. Land, 55, has a loud menagerie of beef cattle, a donkey, chickens and a wild turkey that hangs around with them. At the edge of his property closest to the Dan is a 550-foot well. Land has been thinking a lot about his water.
“They say there’s arsenic in the river. That bothers me.”
And another thing. Land suspects ash may have seeped into the river long before the spill. In 2007, records showed “potentially serious” seepage. In 2010, the EPA listed the ash ponds as “high hazard.”
“We fish in that river,” he said. “My kids and grand-kids swam in that river. How come they ain’t cleaning it up? You know what I’m saying? It’s been four weeks.”
Workers began vacuuming sediment near the spill two weeks ago, but quit because of snow, then high water due to snow melt. They resumed Wednesday.
“We will continue working until we can get all we can in that area,” said Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks. He said the company and government agencies will identify other areas of large ash deposits as part of a long-term clean-up plan.
The spill is the third-largest in U.S. history, and the ramifications could reach farther than this one river. A federal prosecutor launched a criminal investigation, and Gov. Pat McCrory said he wants ash ponds statewide moved away from drinking-water sources.
Here, in the Land of Eden, people who know and love the Dan are impatient for action. Over breakfast at Nanny B’s restaurant, Audie Land said all anybody wants to talk about is when their river will run clean.