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Frustration rises as long-term impact of spill goes unanswered

SoVaNow.com / March 03, 2014
A month into the coal ash spill on the Dan River, some local businesses and organizations on the river basin are growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of information on the long-term impact of the disaster.

At Bobcat’s Bait and Tackle in Clarksville, Bobby “Bobcat” Whitlow says the phone began ringing almost immediately at his shop as anglers called to ask about the spill and its impact on Buggs Island Lake.

“People wanted to know if it was safe to fish, or go near the water,” said Whitlow. Clearly, his customers — many who hail from outside the area — were worried, but “I had no answers for them. I knew only what I read in the paper,” he said.

Shortly after he heard about the release of coal ash from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., Whitlow said he put his boat in on the Dan River to witness the effects downstream. The water was gray, instead of its usual brown.

“You could tell right away something wasn’t right.”

Since he wasn’t fishing that day, Whitlow said he could not tell if the spill was having an impact on the fish.

Whitlow, whose livelihood and passion for fishing go hand-in-hand — he sponsors or is affiliated with several local and regional tournaments — is also frustrated by the lack of answers coming from “the experts.” He says it’s all well and good that Duke Energy has accepted responsibility for the spill, and that water tests are showing no discernible problems, but he’s more worried about the fish and the sediment where the these toxic chemicals will settle.

“The worms and other foods the fish consume live in the bottom of the lake. If it’s contaminated, what does that do to the fish?” he asked.

“They” — officials with Virginia and North Carolina agencies, and the U.S. Environmental Agency — “are telling you, ‘If you see any of the [sludge] don’t touch it,’ so what does that do to the fish or other wildlife?”

Whitlow said at least one local angler has told him he will not fish “in his usual spots” on Buggs Island Lake. It’s comments like these that worry Mecklenburg County’s Tourism Coordinator, Justin Kearns.

“If there’s one person saying that, there are more,” said Kearns, who fears that if word spreads that the lake is not safe to fish, tourists will stop coming to the area.

Kearns, who was hired last year to help rebrand Southside Virginia as a destination for outdoors enthusiasts, created an entire marketing campaign around the pristine beauty of the lake and surrounding forests, and the abundance of hunting and fishing opportunities.

For now, Whitlow confirmed, there’s no sign that any of the fishing competitions are shying away from the area. However, he added, most of the competitions are “catch and release.” Participants don’t keep or plan to eat the fish.

Scott Shanklin, who heads Occoneechee State Park in Clarksville, said it is too soon to tell if the spill will affect the park’s summer camping season. “If by April, people are not booking the cabins, that could be an indication of a problem,” Shanklin said.

There are a number of organizations working to promote outdoor water-related opportunities on the river and the wider Roanoke River basin, of which the Dan is a part. Groups like the Dan River Basin Association and the Roanoke River Basin Association are developing and marketing area blueways (water trails for canoers and kayakers) with a goal of bringing in more tourists. To date, they’ve collectively spent over $150,000 to install trailhead interpretive signs, river mileage markers, and launch sites on waterways affected by the spill.

The long-term consequences of the coal spill could upend their plans.

Tiffany Haworth, who serves as the executive director of the Dan River Basin Association, says she is trying to remain optimistic. The message she is promoting is that Southside Virginia is still open for the outdoor-loving tourists. There are over 150 miles of blueways on the Roanoke River Basin alone, and most stretches of the Roanoke have not been affected by the spill.

She said she is encouraging people to consider traveling to those areas, as well as sites on the Dan upstream from the Duke Energy plant in Eden.

She is quick, however, to warn kayakers and canoers to stay away from the Dan River below the spill site. While officials note the water is safe to drink, Haworth pointed out that North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services advises people to avoid recreational contact with water and sediment in the Dan River in North Carolina downstream of the Duke Power-Eden spill site.

The agency also recommends that people avoid contact with submerged or floating coal ash, or ash washed up on the riverbank, and do not eat any fish or shellfish collected downstream from the spill site.

Virginia’s Health Department has not upgraded its consumption advisory since the spill. It remains the same as it’s been for the past several years — do not eat more than two servings of fish from Buggs Island Lake each month. A similar advisory is in place for portions of the Dan River.

Despite her optimism, Haworth said her organization is not waiting for government officials to study the consequences of the coal ash release.

The Dan River Basin Association is about to commence its own testing of the invertebrates that live in the sediment of the riverbed.

“They are the true indicators of the health of the waterways,” said Haworth, as the creatures are a major food source for fish, turtles and other amphibians that live in the river.

Since the work of the Dan River Basin Association will not include an analysis of the Kerr Reservoir sediment, Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said his group has plans to perform similar tests on the lake. These tests cost a lot of money, explained Lester. Right now, the RRBA is looking for funding to cover their costs.

Both Lester and Haworth encourage people to stay informed about the spill and its aftermath. One excellent source of information is found on the Dan River Basin Association website at http://www.danriver.org. They also agree that Duke Energy needs to be held accountable not just for the spill, but for the cleanup and for future marketing to restore people’s faith that Southside Virginia is a good place to hunt and fish.

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