About a dozen types of fish — and the creatures they depend on for food — live in the Dan River, where nearly 85,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the water from a broken pipe Sunday upriver in Eden, N.C.
Toxic substances from the coal ash concern Matt Wasson, program director Appalachian Voices, a non-profit environmental organization.
Selenium — a chemical found in pot ash — can cause reproductive failure in fish or kill them at high levels.
“We would not expect levels to be that high after this spill,” Wasson said, referring to the leak that occurred at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station that closed in 2012.
However, Wasson does worry because selenium bio-magnifies once it enters the ecosystem. It enters macro-invertebrates — the insects and other creatures fish feed on — at a certain level and increases as it moves up the food chain to the fish that eat them.
“It’s one of those compounds — like mercury [also found in coal ash] — that magnifies the higher up you go in the food chain,” Wasson said. “You get low levels in invertebrates, higher levels in fish.”
An incident involving Belews Creek Power Plant that dumped coal ash into Belews Lake in the 1970s wiped out 19 of 20 species of fish. Researchers from Wake Forest University concluded that selenium killed them off, Wasson said.
Another toxic by-product in coal ash — arsenic — gets into the sediment where important invertebrates live, Wasson said.
“There could be a lot of arsenic in the sediment that’s having a lot of profound ecological impact on the river,” Wasson said.
Rebecca Leprell, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Epidemiology, said there was already a fish consumption advisory for the Dan River separate from the coal ash spill, due to levels of mercury and PCBs.
The department recommends that residents avoid eating catfish longer than 32 inches and not to consume more than two fish meals of any other species per month, Leprell said.
Though there is no reason to believe short-term exposure to coal ash through fish consumption is a health concern, the VDH is still evaluating the situation, Leprell said. The department recommends avoiding eating fish from the Dan River until the evaluation is complete, Leprell said.
Macro-invertebrates that fish consume include the stonefly, mayfly, hellgrammite, crayfish, crane fly, dragonfly, water strider, snail, water penny, snipe fly, riffle beetle, damselfly and caddisfly, according to Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association.
Haworth said it is impossible to determine the short-term and long-term impact the spill will have on the river’s ecosystem.
“It will obviously have an impact, and remediation needs to begin as soon as possible,” Haworth said.
The DRBA is working with other organizations to assess the impact and keep the public informed of safety information, impact updates and mitigation efforts.
“As more information becomes available, DRBA will collaborate with appropriate partners to help repair and restore the river’s ecosystem,” Haworth said.
Wasson, calling the incident “a massive disaster,” said six inches of coal ash covered the bottom of the river Tuesday about two miles downstream from the spill site.
“It’s like a lava flow moving slowly toward Danville on the bottom of the river,” Wasson said.
Selenium toxicity could be a concern for humans for months or years as a result of the spill, Wasson said. Arsenic could reduce the number of fish available in the Dan River for years, harming the food chain on which they depend for food.
“It’s fair to say possible impacts of this on fish populations could extend for years,” he said.
The state health department recommends that recreational users of the Dan River exercise caution when fishing, kayaking or engaging in other activities, Leprell said. Direct contact with coal ash can cause skin irritation and it’s best to wash it off with soap and water, Leprell said.
John Aulbach, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, said the water treated by the Danville Utilities Water Treatment Plant is safe to drink.
“Danville Utilities has done a great job taking care of this,” Aulbach said.
The office is monitoring the plant’s operations and following up to make sure it is performing well, Aulbach said. The Office of Drinking Water has seen and analyzed the results of test sampling from Duke Energy and they are “very acceptable,” he said.
Aulbach said he expects to look at additional samples collected by the city Thursday.
Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee.
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