Farmers worry about using river water after coal ash spill

Farmers worry about using river water after coal ash spill (Image 1)

Take a cruise along the Dan River, north of Eden, and you will find hundreds of acres of farmland and livestock.

“You never run out of stuff to add to your problems when you’re farming,” joked local farmer Jerry Apple. Yes, Apple is actually his last name.

It’s been a tough winter for farmers, but Apple said he never imagined his biggest concern would be as simple as water.

“We depend on the river to furnish the water, we always have, and never had a problem,” Apple explained. “But this year is up in the air — we’re not sure.”

Apple grows a little more than 200 acres of corn on plot settled right along the Dan River. He is one of dozens of farmers and livestock owners who are wondering if toxins from the coal ash will prevent them from using the river for irrigation.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said

Apple’s land is downstream from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station, where thousands of tons of coal ash spilled into the water — the same water they pump onto their crops.

“Maybe we can’t sell it if there’s something in it,” Apple explained.

On Monday, a group of land owners met in Reidsville to discuss their concerns. The meeting was organized by the Dan River Basin Association, which has been helping people who live nearby to address the issues emerging from the spill.

The state estimates about 70 miles of the river was contaminated, and say sediment in the river is mixing with the coal ash.

“You do worry about crops and the livestock and the aquatic life, and you want to have clean rivers,” said Eden mayor Wayne Tuggle.

Tuggle said for a town like Eden — branded as a place to take full advantage of the two rivers that run through it — the spill is a catastrophe.

“Fifty thousand to 82,000 tons of coal ash,” Tuggle said. “That’s just overwhelming to even think about how much that is. We are going to have this dubious distinction of the third largest coal ash spill in the nation, and that’s not the distinction you want.”

For farmers like Apple, the concern is more than just losing expensive crop.

“We plan to pay for this farm with what we grow on it; and if we can’t grow anything, we can’t pay anything,” he said.

With planting season just weeks away, the clock is ticking.

“Are the crops going to be safe?” asked Brian Williams, with the Dan River Basin Association as he explained the most asked question among farmers. “”As far as we know, we feel like they are going to be. But that’s a monitoring issue, and there’s just so many unknowns with this spill.”

Environmental groups, university groups and Duke Energy are doing testing to find out if the water is safe to use. They hope to have some results as early as next week.

“We’d like to know something before then — if we can plant and if it will be all right,” Apple said.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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