More than anything, I want to believe Paul Newton when he says his company will fix the damage it has done to the Dan River. Newton, Duke Energy's president for utility operations in North Carolina, has apologized for the company's ash pond leak in Eden that has polluted the river for many miles. “You have our complete, 100 percent commitment to do it right,” Newton reportedly said. “We are accountable and we will make it right.”
Write that down. I have no doubt Newton means it when he says Duke will make it right. But Duke itself doesn’t know what making it right will mean – just as it did not know that it had a metal drain pipe underneath a large ash pond full of leftover coal ash from a closed power plant – or that that metal pipe had corroded to the point that it allowed an estimated 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash slurry to flow into the Dan. The company knew pipes were there, but thought they were of reinforced concrete, not metal. The flow of waste into the river contains toxic metals including arsenic and lead.
The 214-mile-long Dan has not previously attracted the kind of attention that New York’s Hudson once got for pollution, or Eastern North Carolina’s Neuse River, where nutrient levels have been way too high during some periods, or Tennessee’s Clinch River after a coal fly ash pond gave way a few years ago and sent an estimated 1.1 billion gallons downstream.
But the Dan is a fine river that deserved better than to have the accumulated waste of years of coal power generation polluting its bottom and clouding its water. To me, it’s personal. The Dan River is a constant up here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. The Dan rises as a little trickle, a seep, really in a cornfield one mile east of us on a farm once owned by our neighbors Euwell B. Handy and his wife Oma. Within 1/4 mile it is flowing as a small stream, and another half mile west the creek that becomes the Dan backs up into the second pond on the Dan's upper reaches in the backyard of Barnie and Debbie Day. All around us are other rushing, vibrant streams that begin as small springs or seeps or just wet places in a hollow, and all of them eventually wind up in the Dan somewhere down the way.
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We live just over a ridge from the Dan’s origin. We have the second spring on the North Prong of the North Fork of the Smith River, which merges with the Dan in Eden. A mile or so south of us the Mayo River emerges under U.S. 58 and also flows into the Dan somewhere down the hill.
The Dan is not just a geological feature. It’s the inspiration for the names of a number of villages and towns along the way. Start with Meadows of Dan, at the junction of the Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. 58, which carries traffic to Norfolk in the East and Bristol in the West. Follow the waterway down to Danbury, N.C. And then miles east, through Mayodan, memorializing the confluence of the Mayo and the Dan. And further downstream to Danville, Va., where Dan River Mills was a major textile company for generations of Piedmont workers.
The Dan is picky about its route. It crosses into North Carolina and then back into Virginia several times on its way before it eventually joins the huge Roanoke River Basin, which drains much of the Middle Atlantic Region before flowing into the Albemarle Sound and helping create the Atlantic.
Not many people realize that the upper reaches of the Dan provide power for the City of Danville. Two lakes and impressive concrete dams up in the Blue Ridge provide the water for a six-foot-high raceway down the mountain to Danville's hydroelectric plant in the Kibler Valley. That flume once was made of wood, and you can still see segments of the old wood pipe in various places. It's all steel now.
We've seen parts of the Dan up close. Felicia Shelor, the savvy businesswoman who owns The Poor Farmer’s Market in Meadows of Dan, each March organizes a hike from the lower dam on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment down the mountain to the power plant. It is like hiking in one afternoon from the gray landscape of winter into spring, where green leaves and wildflowers are popping along the river as it roars and splashes over its rocky course. It is gorgeous.
All along the river, the Dan River Basin Association conducts hikes and canoe trips and promotes the health of the river and the best recreational uses. It can show you ancient Indian fishing weirs as well as other spots along the river that mark fascinating chapters in history. We’ve marveled at that even up here in the high reaches.
Alongside our creek two years ago, I pulled out of the dirt a stone axhead that I expect is thousands of years old. It was barely 200 feet down from from our springhouse, where bubbles up some of the best drinking water we’ve ever tasted. It is a reminder that after thousands of years of human habitation up here, starting with Native Americans in antiquity and continuing in recent centuries with European settlers and their descendants, the water still runs off this mountainside fresh and clear on its way to the sea hundreds of miles to the east – or was until the pipe broke.
I hope Duke Energy means what it says about fixing the coal-ash pollution it has caused to this fine old waterway.