Following the environmental spill on the Dan River last week in Eden, the National Committee for the New River ensures nothing of that magnitude could happen in Ashe County’s rivers and streams.
“Unfortunately, what is in the Dan River is really bad,” said George Santucci, executive director of the West Jefferson-based National Committee for the New River. “Ore Knob Mine would have been the closest thing we have in our region to have that kind of impact.”
In early February, tons of “coal fly ash” spilled into the Dan River, which flows through N.C. and Virginia and eventually into the Roanoke River.
“I liken (the substance) to when you burn charcoal in a barbecue,” Santucci said. “After the coal becomes ash, that’s the same thing that happens with a coal plant, except they have to dispose of it.”
According to a Feb. 7, release by the Dan River Basin Association, the spill was the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
“An ash spill is contaminated with extremely high levels of arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and other toxic metals typically found in coal ash,” according to the release.
Santucci said there is one coal plant in Giles County, Va., that could have the potential of seeing a similar situation to that in Eden. The NCNR among others are looking to make sure there weren’t storm water drains or other dangers that could affect the water.
If something were to happen at that location, it would have no affect on Ashe or Alleghany counties.
As far as Ore Knob Mine, the NCNR has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent a situation similar to that on the Dan River from happening.
“We worked with the EPA to make the Ore Knob Mine a ‘superfund’ site,” Santucci said. “Millions of dollars of restoration were spent to ensure (that situation) cannot happen.”
The restoration made it to where the New River does not interact with the waste from the mine. That was done by diverting the steam away from the site.
In 2010, copper from the Ore Knob Mine spilled into the New River through Peak Creek, a tributary which flows into the river.
The New River experienced a similar, but less catastrophic, spill in September when a dormant mine in Wythe County, Va., was the source of high levels of zinc entering the streams.
Santucci said the key to preventing these spills from happening is allowing agencies to do their job and for plants to allow oversight.
“The only way we’re all going to stop this from happening is allow the EPA to come up with the new standards and regulations on how to dispose waste,” he said.
Many concerns about EPA oversight include higher costs of power or job loss, but it is believed better oversight would lessen contamination.
“People oppose regulation because they are afraid it would raise rates,” Santucci said. “At the end of the day, they can’t poison the rivers either. Either way, it will raise rates.”
In case there was a river contamination on the New River, Santucci said the towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson would have an adequate clean water supply through independent wells.
The EPA has an end of year deadline to come with new standards and regulations to deal with contaminated waste. For more information visit, www.epa.gov/
To prevent future spills, Santucci believes there needs to be more cooperation to ensure rivers are not at risk.
“I think vigilance is necessary,” Santucci said. “The EPA needs to be allowed to do their job and enforce the environmental laws.
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.