It’s been a year like no other for Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA).
In early February, a Duke Energy coal ash waste pond on the banks of Dan River – not far from Eden, North Carolina, home to DRBA headquarters – began to spill its toxic contents into the charming, scenic river. It was one of the worst coal ash spills ever to occur in the US. The cause was a broken stormwater pipe which released nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water over the course of a week before the leak was plugged. The spill would spread 70 miles downstream.
Tiffany, who has received several national awards for her communications and community initiatives, and her team at DRBA, immediately sprang into action, expanding their outreach and education about the threat posed by storing coal ash in such a manner. Residents and businesses were forced to think about where their electricity (coal ash is a by-product of a local coal-fired power plant) and drinking water come from, and how our water and energy are interconnected.
In the interview below, you’ll find out from Tiffany how the coal ash spill clean-up and recovery is going, the impact that agriculture is having on the local watershed and what DRBA is doing to encourage people to practice environmental stewardship.
Tell me about Dan River Basin Association and the work DRBA is doing to protect the local watershed and the river ecosystem.
The Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) was created in 2002 by residents to protect and promote the natural and cultural resources of the 3,300 square mile Dan River Basin through education, recreation and stewardship. It is the only regional nonprofit organization dedicated to the Dan River and its tributaries. (Neat fact: the Dan River crosses the North Carolina-Virginia state line eight times on its way from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the John H. Kerr Reservoir.)
Since its inception, DRBA has become a leader in outdoor recreational master planning, trail and blueway development, bi-state and multiple jurisdiction collaboration, information interpretation and dissemination related to environmental issues, education and long-term change.
DRBA’s accomplishments and successes are numerous. For example, during 2013 volunteers cleaned-up over 100 miles of water and 75 miles of land resulting in 5,000 tons of garbage removed from the river. DRBA’s Trout in the Classroom (TIC) environmental education program reaches thousands of students throughout the region and is the largest TIC program in the nation. DRBA has also constructed dozens of miles of public trails and river accesses and assisted other groups and municipalities with trail building and river access construction.
A coal ash spill earlier this year put the Dan River into the national spotlight. What does this environmental disaster say about the relationship between our water and energy systems?
That’s right. On February 2, 2014, a stormwater pipe burst under the primary coal ash lagoon at Duke Energy’s Dan River Station near Eden, North Carolina, sending 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River (Resources and information at: www.danriver.org/coalash). Although the 2008 spill at Kingston, Tennessee spewed over 30 times as much coal ash into neighboring waters, the Dan River spill has refocused national attention on the way coal ash is stored and its impact on waterways.
We’ve heard from hundreds of people who, for the first time, because of the spill, considered where the electricity to turn their lights and where their drinking water actually came from. This “light bulb” has inspired thousands of residents to become more diligent about the protection of their natural resources.
Coal ash contains arsenic, chromium, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals. Duke Energy has 14 coal ash lagoons located in the Dan River Basin. All of them are unlined and located near waterways. The spill has impacted an estimated 70 miles of the more than 200 miles of the Dan River, affecting local farmers who pull water from the Dan for irrigation and watering of livestock, the outdoor recreational economy and tourism, the river’s ecosystem and residents’ recreational opportunities.
We’ve heard from hundreds of people who, for the first time, because of the spill, considered where the electricity to turn their lights and where their drinking water actually came from. This has been a proverbial “light bulb” moment for regional residents and has opened the door for more education about the relationship between energy and water. The spill has also inspired thousands of residents to become more diligent about the protection of their natural resources.
How is the coal ash spill clean-up and recovery going, and what do you think the future holds for the river?
This is a very difficult question. There isn’t another organization which has faced this same kind of disaster and that we could ask how to heal our river. A bi-state impacted area and having two EPA Regions involved, the Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the Department of Fish & Wildlife has resulted in an unanticipated long planning phase on how to handle the situation. DRBA reacted immediately after the spill, however, monitoring and identifying where large amounts of coal ash collected. With our advice and insistence, finally coal ash has begun to be removed from the river. Unfortunately, we anticipate only about 15 percent will be removed in the next year. Most the ash will remain in the river forever, covered in sediment due to a muddy bottom river system. Our plan is to continue to monitor and identify large amounts of coal ash deposits and make sure we can do all we can to keep the new sediment as clean as possible.
How is agriculture impacting the river?
The Dan River flows through rural woodlands, farmland, urban cities and mountains. Agriculture impacts sections of river through intake and run-off associated with livestock and crop production. Agricultural runoff can be loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients in manure and synthetic fertilizers. In excessive quantities they deplete oxygen in streams and, with fecal bacteria, make waterways unfit for recreational use and harmful to aquatic life. Nutrient runoff can be harder to stop than industrial pollution, because it’s difficult to trace its source — or, more likely, multiple sources.
In addition, agribusiness is growing in our region, not shrinking like in other parts of the country. With added farms along the waterways there is the potential for added pollution.
DRBA monitors the waterways regularly for e-coli and macro-invertebrates. DRBA also provides regional farmers with advice on best management practices, including fencing and riparian buffers. Many of the current farms have been in existence for decades and farmers tend to use the same practices their fathers and grandfathers used. Through education and outreach, DRBA strives to help the farmers understand that new technologies may often be less expensive and improve the health of the river – which in the long run helps their farms be more productive and sustained for generations to come.
Sometimes the key to getting people to take a greater interest in the river corridor and be better stewards is to get them on the water. What is DRBA doing in that regard?
DRBA has hosted a free public outing every first Saturday of every month for the past 12 years. In addition, we plan river outings with corporations, nonprofit organizations, clubs, civic groups, faith-based groups and other groups in the region. Our website highlights every river access in the Dan River Basin and we work closely with local outfitters to help promote outdoor recreation.
When was the first time you thought to yourself, “I need to protect this body of water?”
I was hiking on a trail along the Dan River and saw a bird catch a fish, a deer drinking from the river, a fisherman, a family tubing – and I thought this river truly gives our community its life. From the lowest macro-invertebrate all the way up the food chain to me when I turn on my faucet – simply said: humans can’t survive without clean, fresh water.