Following the fatal tubing accident at a dam in Eden, N.C., that left at least four people dead earlier this month, Danville officials are likely to re-examine whether to remove the dam spanning the Dan River near the former White Mill and Long Mill buildings.
“There are no immediate plans to bring that up to [Danville City] Council, but we would likely be bringing that to Council at some later date,” Danville City Manager Ken Larking said.
A City Council member who has been a long-time advocate of the dam’s removal is Vice Mayor Gary Miller.
“I’m certainly going to bring it up to the mayor,” Miller said Thursday.
Whether to tear down the dam has been and off-and-on question discussed by city officials for years.
The concrete White Mill — or Long Mill — dam owned by the city, stretches 1,144 feet across the Dan River and is 5 feet tall.
The dam is believed to have been built around 1894 to create water power for the Dan River Inc. factories along both sides of the Dan River. For most of its history, it was not accessible to the public.
A review by consultants hired by the city about four years ago found at the time that fully removing the structure would bring the most benefits and the fewest concerns.
Danville Public Works in 2016 recommended removing the dam.
The city did not demolish the dam previously because many area residents opposed the idea.
Five-year-old Kolton Karnes drowned at the Brantley Steam Plant dam in 2010. He was the fourth person to drown at one of the Dan River’s low-head dams since 1965. The dam, which was located downstream of the White Mill dam, was removed in 2011.
In August, 76-year-old Axton resident Ronald Edward Reynolds died after the canoe he was in with his grandson capsized twice at the bottom of the White Mill dam.
A deadly June 16 tubing accident claimed the lives of four of family members at an 8-foot-high dam at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden. The nine family members who set out tubing that day were unaware of the dam, a survivor said. One woman remains missing.
Expressing sorrow at the tragedy, Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones said he would present the question of the dam’s possible removal at a later date. Now is not the time, he said.
“Let’s allow the families to heal,” Jones said. “The last thing the families need is an argument or debate.”
City Council member Sherman Saunders said he is not opposed to taking the dam down.
“I do think that it should be discussed again,” Saunders said Friday.
With plans for a riverfront park on a 4-acre spot near King Memorial Bridge and an area for whitewater rafting, “we ought to be as safe as we can be,” he said, pointing to more expected visitors and residents in the city in the future.
“I would choose the side of safety,” Saunders said. “It may cost a little, but how do you put a figure on human life?”
The firm DHM Designs Inc. (which is now Site Collaborative) in Raleigh, N.C., found in 2017 that demolishing the dam would restore natural habitat and an extended view up and downstream of the structure, showing water rushing over rocks in the river.
The study estimated at the time that it would cost between $100,000 and $250,000 to remove the dam.
Also, getting rid of the dam would result in no ongoing maintenance costs or dam safety concerns, the study concluded.
By removing a large obstruction, smaller obstacles could be added to get more recreational benefits from the river, a consultant with DHM told councilmen at the time. The only drawback would be elimination of the visual cues of the dam’s presence.
Bill Sgrinia, director of Danville Parks and Recreation, said removing the dam — as part of the riverfront park project — would be a credit for the city toward getting permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the park project.
“Any time you can remove a dam from the river, it’s good for the health of the river,” Sgrinia said. “Low-head dams are very dangerous.”
Removing it would enhance the area’s safety and add a beautiful aesthetic to the river, with expanded views of its rocks, he said.
“A river that is free-flowing is prettier than when it is dammed up,” Miller said.
Conditions also would be safer for kayakers and canoers. If the dam is not removed, another dam-related tragedy is inevitable, he added.
“It’s just a matter of time before it happens again here,” Miller said.
Group speaks out
The Dan River Basin Association is launching a conversation about outdoor recreational safety following the tragedy in Eden.
“Every year, thousands of people safely enjoy our outdoor recreational assets because of the collaborative efforts of the organizations and municipalities in our region,” Tiffany Haworth, executive director of the Dan River Basin Association said in a statement this week. “But one tragedy is too many. People and organizations from every corner of the Dan River Basin are reaching out to us and sharing new ideas related to outdoor recreational safety. We want those voices to be heard.”
The group is inviting the more than a dozen counties that make up the Dan River Basin to join in the talk by reaching out to the organization at email@example.com or 336-627-6270.
“DRBA is the expert when it comes to outdoor recreational assets and protecting the environment,” Cindy Adams, tourism for the city of Eden said in the statement.