Jobs Go First, Then Recreation? Duke Energy’s N.C. Coal Ash Spill Spoils the Garden in Eden

The shuttered Duke Energy power plant on the Dan River in Eden, N.C. leaked some 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge into the river on Feb. 2. (Photograph by Bobby Amoroso)

Rockingham County promotes its rivers as economic revitalization; a massive, toxic spill threatens that effort

EDEN, N.C. — Mark Bishopric doesn’t want to sound alarmist. However churned up he might feel inside about the coal ash spill in the Dan River, one of the worst in U.S. history and  just a few miles from his canoe-and-kayak company here, he’s reluctant to let on.

Three Rivers Outfitters, of which Bishopric is a co-manager, offers 26 different paddling trips on the trio of gentle, meandering rivers that cut through the forests and farm fields in northern Rockingham County — the Smith, the Mayo and the Dan. Just three of those trips, Bishopric stressed, are downstream from Duke Energy’s coal ash pond that leaked as much as 39,000 tons of toxic sludge into the Dan on Feb. 2, coating the river bottom some 70 miles east toward Danville, Va., and beyond.

“It’s not a good thing, that’s for sure, and it’s going to have an impact on our business,” Bishopric said Saturday outside his shop, located amid the largely empty, red-brick remains of Eden’s once-thriving textile manufacturing economy. “But you just don’t know how bad the consequences are until you know what can be remediated.”

Bishopric does have some sense of how bad it is. And not just because of the local and national media interviews he’s been giving; last Thursday, for example, a reporter with Al Jazeera America asked him for a boat ride to the spill site. He made that same trip himself two days after the spill, and saw the banks of the Dan “black and gummy.”

Toxic coal ash sludge from the Duke Energy spill on the steps of the ramp at Draper Landing on the Dan River in Eden, N.C.
Toxic coal ash sludge from the Duke Energy spill on the steps of the ramp at Draper Landing on the Dan River in Eden, N.C. (Photograph by Justin Catanoso)

Still, Bishopric voiced no anger, no judgment. Twenty-three of his river trips are unaffected, he said, adding: “Duke Energy has said they will take responsibility and do what needs to be done with remediation. I take them at their word on that.”

Yet Another Blow

It’s an understandable instinct in Rockingham County. Many of North Carolina’s rural, manufacturing-dependent counties have seen uncontrollable outside forces alter their economic landscape, leaving locals feeling battered and often helpless. Rockingham has suffered as much or more than most, losing giant employers such as Pillotex and American Tobacco. Its economic recovery has been made more difficult by the fact that no interstates cross through its boundaries, while cell-phone service and access to high-speech internet remains spotty at best even in the bigger towns.

The economic indicators reveal the impact. Rockingham’s 7.5 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the 12-county Piedmont Triad. Only Caswell and Surry counties have higher poverty rates in the region. When it comes to high school drop-out rates (24 percent) and even life expectancy (75 years), Rockingham ranks among the 10 worst in the state.

In recent years, the county’s economic development officials have pushed tourism-related strategies to promote its most enduring assets — the vast forests and miles of rivers for fishing, tubing and boating. Cruelly, now that Rockingham County and idyllic-sounding Eden are gaining national attention — from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from CBS News to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC — those assets are connected to an environmental disaster. As state health officials warn people to stay off the river below the spill, experts predict the economic losses could reach into the millions.

“We’ve got this nationwide black eye on the Dan River,” Brian Williams, a program manager for the Dan River Basin Association, told the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C.

Rockingham County friends Harold Byrd and Donald Perdue have fished the Dan River for years; they won't any longer. (Photograph by Justin Catanoso)
Rockingham County friends Harold Byrd and Donald Perdue have fished the Dan River for years; they won’t any longer. (Photograph by Justin Catanoso)

Done with the River

At Ray’s Bait and Tackle on Meadow Road in Eden, customers came and went on Saturday, a warm, sunny, late-winter day that gave every indication that spring was near. Some were gathering fishing supplies, others buying ammunition for hunting.

Behind the counter, Mark McKinney said he was driving along the Dan in Danville, Va., 20 miles from Eden, around the time of the spill. He noticed the river was steel gray and figured something was wrong. The TV news that night confirmed his suspicions.

“There’s not a whole lot of talk in the store about it, so it’s hard to say if people are worried,” McKinney said. “It might be too early to tell. But the more you hear about it, you start to worry about stuff other than fish, like mussels and frogs. This stuff is heavy. It’s going to settle.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last week that near the site of the spill, a coal-ash bar some five feet thick, 75 feet long and 15 feet wide has formed. Coal ash — which contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and mercury, all extremely hazardous to aquatic and wildlife, not to mention humans — has been found floating on the John H. Kerr reservoir on the Virginia-North Carolina border some 80 miles east.

The story now is running fast in different directions. Communities like Danville downstream continue to monitor their filtered drinking water and say supplies remain safe. State officials confirm that Duke Energy appears to have stopped both leaking drainage pipes that carried so much toxic sludge into the Dan. Federal officials are investigating whether North Carolina regulatory agencies and Duke Energy have too “cozy” a relationship given that environmental groups have been warning about the hazards of riverside coal-ash retention ponds for years.

Meanwhile, at Draper Landing, a public access point to the Dan alongside Highway 700 in Eden, two friends pulled up in a black Ford pickup as if arriving at a funeral. They walked down to the river, swollen with rain and snow melt, and swapped stories.

Locals Donald Perdue and Harold Byrd, both 40 and trucking company employees, have a special relationship to the Dan. They’ve pulled catfish and bream, crappy and bass from these rolling waters every spring and summer for years. They’ve splashed in the shallows and hunted deer and squirrel along the banks. Good memories, all in the past.

“You can go in and try to clean this up, but think about the food chain,” Perdue said. “The fish and the birds and the deer all use this river. It’s in them now. I used to fish and hunt here, but I won’t eat anything connected to this river, not any more.”

“I’ve pulled some nice catfish from this river,” Byrd said. “Ten to 15 pounders. I’m going to miss that.”

Justin Catanoso is a journalist based in Greensboro, N.C., about an hour south of Eden. He is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. This story was also published online with The Business Journal in Greensboro.


Justin Catanoso is a North Carolina-based journalist with 30 years of experience in covering health care, science, economic development and business. He is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Science-in-Society Award for his coverage of the tobacco industry in the early 1990s. He has published travel stories from the U.S., Italy, Austria, Thailand and Canada. After 13 years as founding executive editor of The Business Journal in Greensboro, N.C., he is now director of journalism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.