Dan river coal ash disaster is the water safe to drink dan river disaster greensboro.com electricity generation efficiency

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Johns didn’t know it then, but he faced a night-long battle of wits with the river flowing just 100 yards from his lab. A blue-gray plume of coal ash from the North Carolina plant, traveling a few miles an hour, had started its journey sometime earlier that day and already had crossed the state line.

“The first two checks, everything looked normal — 7:30, then 8:30 — all pretty good,” he said of the reading on his lab’s turbidity meter, positioned next to a tub with about a dozen spigots that each tapped water from a different stage in the purification process.

Johns kept doing tests on the water all night. What puzzled him most, the water at the end of the treatment process was coming out fine — with little turbidity, even though samples of raw water from the river and samples of water in earlier stages of treatment continued to register high turbidity.

Now Johns really was puzzled. Despite the uncontrolled turbidity as water laced with coal ash came in from the river and as it moved through the early stages of treatment, that same water was coming out the other end of the plant clean, clear and drinkable.

Later, he and other water-plant personnel would figure it out. The coal ash was making the water cloudy and undrinkable right up to the last phase of filtration. That’s where it had been screened out and collected neatly atop the plant’s filter beds that were made, ironically enough, partly of anthracite coal.

Thirteen of the plant’s 14 black employees filed a lawsuit against the plant owner, then known as Duke Power, for discriminatory practices that kept them stuck in laborer roles that paid $1.57 an hour — less than any of the plant’s other 81 employees.

Writing about employment practices at the steam station for the full court in an 8-0 decision, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger said the “Negro employees” did not need to prove beyond a doubt that Duke Power executives recently created new tests for advancement solely to reserve better-paying jobs for white people.

“The Act requires the elimination of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to employment that operate invidiously to discriminate on the basis of race,” Burger wrote. “If as here, an employment practice that operates to exclude Negroes cannot be shown to be related to job performance, it is prohibited, notwithstanding the employer’s lack of discriminatory intent.”

But during its 63 years of operation in the Draper section of Eden, the steam station was better known for softball tournaments than hardball racial conflict. The site featured a ballfield along Edgewood Road that hosted numerous softball games and tournaments over the years.

“Many of the employees also participated in a baseball league and played at the site on the Duke Power Ball Field,” the company said in a 2012 news release about the newly retired coal-fired plant. “This field served the community as a practice facility and location to host league games for nearly five decades.”

It seems hard to believe nowadays, but power plants like the now-shuttered steam station once perched on the forefront of technology. Duke Power opened its first coal-fired plants in 1911 — one in Greensboro, another in Greenville, S.C. — anticipating that the utility would max out the capacity of North Carolina’s rivers to produce hydroelectric energy using the established technology of that era.

But by the time the first of Dan River’s three coal-fired units came online, coal was a well-established form of energy production. Utility workers fired up the first unit in December 1949 and then a second turbine the next year as a response to the booming power demands of the post-World War II growth spurt.

The Dan River complex initially functioned like an old-fashioned mill village. The utility built a dozen rental houses for plant workers at a total cost of $120,000. The houses were later sold to some of the workers, who were required to move them off company property to new locations.

The plant was part of a fleet of eight Duke Power plants that ran on coal and repeatedly led the nation in measures of efficient production of electricity. By the mid-1990s, the relatively small Dan River plant produced enough electricity each year to provide for the needs of more than 45,000 households.

In 2008, the utility announced its plans to retire the steam station and replace it with a “combined-cycle” operation that would run on natural gas and use another part of the same Edgewood Road property. That came to fruition in 2012, and the coal-fired plant at the river’s edge was closed that April.