When a massive coal ash spill was swept down the Dan River through Danville, the toxic stew smudged this proud mill city's vision of building a new, diversified economic base.
Once a thriving hub for tobacco and textiles, civic leaders now are left to repeatedly assure residents of this city of 43,000 that the water is safe to drink, forget about persuading businesses to sink roots here. The spill is already being used by competitors to lure business prospects away from Danville, a city official says.
With the full environmental consequences of the spill years away, community leaders fear the city's efforts to redefine itself have suffered immeasurably.
"It's like the town itself has been covered with coal ash, is what it really comes down to," said Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, a water protection group. "Anyone who would consider moving here would have second thoughts."
The city is now looking to Duke Energy to make good on the damage it has done. The nation's largest power company owns the impoundment pond less than 25 miles upriver from Danville that sprung a leak, spewing the coal ash into the Dan and coating its waters for 70 miles.
City Manager Joe King said Danville is tallying up the damages from the spill, and they'll include more than overtime for city workers at the water treatment plant. He commends Duke for its response to date.
"We want to be reasonable but we expect them not to just pay out-of-pocket expenses but to deal with the coal in our water treatment plant and to right the wrong," he said. "The safety of the drinking water, the safety and condition of the river, our reputation — all those things are going to have to be considered."
The coal ash flowed into the city in the days following the spill in Eden, N.C., turning the river gray, collecting in basins in the century-old municipal water treatment plant and leaving vast deposits of the toxic concoction in sections of the river. Coal ash, the byproduct of coal-fired energy plants, contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other dangerous chemicals.
At the Schoolfield Dam on the Dan, the Environmental Protection Agency has found a 300-by-50-yard blanket of sludge up to 1 foot deep in some sections. The deposit is where the river is tapped by the treatment plant, which has undergone millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years.
State, city and federal officials insist the plant is filtering out the toxins in the coal ash and that tap water exceeds federal clean water standards. To shore up confidence in public drinking water supplies, Gov. Terry McAuliffe toured the water plant on Tuesday, and said he would toast Danville with a glass of tap water.
"I'm just so relieved it has not affected the drinking water," McAuliffe said.
Officials never advised the city's 18,000 water customers to abstain from using treated water, as hundreds of thousands of water users in the Charleston, W.Va., area were told in January when a coal-cleaning agent spilled into the Elk River. Still, many in Danville are buying bottled water or distilling tap water.
Chef Dustin Haberer, who can see the treatment plant from his home, has turned to bottled water since the coal ash spill.
"It's perception," he said. "They can tell us whatever they want. I'm sure they have regulations they need to follow, and I'm sure they are, but that doesn't mean that's good enough for my family."
The fouling of the Dan River couldn't have been a crueler twist for this city, whose past and future are defined by the river that dissects it. Handsome brick tobacco warehouses, lined up like cord wood, stand along the banks of the river downtown ready to come to life again. Mills that once hummed here once turned the waters a different hue — green and red — with dyes used in the manufacturing of textiles. Low-head dams cross the river, remnants of Danville's muscular manufacturing past.
The river had been on the rebound environmentally and city leaders have used the Dan to promote Danville as a recreational resource for canoeing and kayaking, much as Richmond has embraced the James River as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
To that end, City Council member Lee Vogler and others worked successfully to have a 15-mile stretch of the Dan River designated a "scenic river."
"We've spent the last several years really promoting the river as a vibrant resource for Danville," Vogler, a youthful-looking 27, said before a public meeting with state environmental officials on Tuesday. "Our slogan is 'Where Innovation" Flows.' "
Duke Energy is responsible for a "preventable situation," Vogler said, and he wants it to be fully accountable for the mess it created. "They keep saying they're going to make it right, and we plan on holding them to that," he said.
Duke officials have been in steady communication with Danville officials and have had "important conversations" about making amends, spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.
"We are responsible for costs directly related to this spill," Sheehan said. "We're accountable, we're responsible and we'll do the right thing."
A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring said he met recently with Duke representatives and "asked them to continue to be honest, open, and accountable to those affected" to ensure speedy reimbursement to state and local governments.
"The situation is now moving from emergency response to longer-term remediation, but it is too early in that process to say where it may go," spokesman Michael Kelly wrote in an email.
Teams of federal and state officials have been testing the waters and its wildlife since the coal ash spill, but the full environmental implications of the contamination will likely take years to assess, said Kevin M. Eichinger, one of two on-site coordinators from the EPA.
The EPA is also tracking where the ash is migrating, he said. The EPA is studying how best to remove the coal ash, including lower sections of the Dan that has pollutants.
"We don't want to go to an area that has elevated concentrations of PCBs and mercury and stir that," Eichinger said.
As for the city's drinking water, Eichinger held up a plastic water bottle filed from a city water fountain.
"I have no problem drinking it," he said. Of others, "It's their right to make their own decisions."
For those who see a bright future for Danville, despite the environmental drama, there are glimmers of hope. Shops and restaurants have opened in The River District, the city's former industrial center, and the city has a collection of stately homes that are perched above the Dan.
Then there's the river.
"Every Danvillian has a pretty intimate relationship with the river," said City Manager King. "We have a unique environment in that the river is right on the level we are, not down on some gorge or across a chasm. We cross back and forth daily."
Mayor Sherman M. Saunders, an unabashed cheerleader for his city, ticked off the number of foreign-owned companies that have established a presence in Danville during the city's economic development campaign. He believes the city has addressed the primary concern — drinking water safety — and should get on with the business of selling Danville.
"You can't just say for two years, everything is going to stop," Saunders said. "We can't do that.
"We have worked very hard to change our image and we are making progress," he said. "We believe we have a good story to tell."