skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Pete Altman’s Blog

Coal ash spill upriver of Washington DC delivers message in new way

Pete Altman

Posted March 10, 2009

, , ,
Share | | |


The Associated Press is reporting today that most of the slurry spill from the New Page plant hit the riverbank on the West Virginia side of the river, rather than entering the river directly. Bullet dodged? Perhaps, until the next really good rainstorm...


Sometimes there's just no way to hide the need for regulation.

The Maryland Department of the Environment just reported that a ruptured pipeline carrying wet coal ash has spilled 4,000 gallons of the toxic-laden stuff into the North Branch of the Potomac River, in Luke, MD.

I don't know how long it'll take for the spill to reach DC proper, but its a hell of a way to send a message about how much we need to regulate the handling of this stuff. All the more reason to thank the Obama Administration for announcing plans to propose federal regulations for coal waste.

Got a suggestion for tracking the spill as it flows toward Washington DC? Let us know and we'll promote it here.

New Page paper mill in Luke, MD

Here is a picture of the plant site from Google Earth. Note that the MD Department of Environment release indicates that the plant's coal slurry ponds are across the river in West Virginia, and that while the broken pipeline is shut down, ones parallel to it are carrying the slurry. So here's a case where the coal slurry is being piped over a river to its storage pond, surely a high-risk way of managing the waste.

It is also worth noting that while the vast majority of attention in the coal waste debate goes to power plants, there are a number of plants - like this paper mill - that include coal-power plants to provide electricity for the operation. Such sources of coal combustion waste should be included in federal regulations, just like regular coal plants.

Share | | |


SMMar 10 2009 11:19 AM

Citizens near the river can take photos (on cell phones, cameras etc) and geo-tag them with google maps so we can all see what's going on.

Peter AltmanMar 10 2009 11:29 AM

Great idea SM. Closer to Luke the spill may be visible; as it goes downstream it will likely dilute. But we still will have a good sense as to when the toxic-laden materials will arrive in DC.

CSnDCMar 10 2009 01:26 PM

If anyone close to the spill could photograph and then recover (safely) using gloves and a plastic bag any dead fish or birds and call Robert Ballinger or Dawn Stoltzfus call 410 537 3003 at the MD Dept of the Environment (MDE), they may be able to assist or direct you to a testing facility. MDE staff is also onsite at the spill. I would be curious to see how far downstream this results in near immediate wildlife death. Also post the pics as SM recommended.

Robin BroderMar 10 2009 02:01 PM

Please send reports and photos to Potomac Riverkeeper at, and call 301-POTOMAC.

ajw_93Mar 10 2009 03:13 PM

This puts me in mind of when Hugh Bennett said to Congress: "There goes Oklahoma." Will these toxins reaching DC be what it takes to make changes?

tm_54Mar 10 2009 06:09 PM

1.Pete, the spill was of coal ash, yet you mention coal slurry twice after the Google photo. Coal slurry is black, ash slurry is gray to beige and is the residual after the coal is burned (global warming, anyone?). Let's watch out for facts.
2.While 4000 gal of beige slurry was leaked into the N Potomac, the same pulp and paper mill discharged over 10 MILLION gallons of colored effluent over those 10 hours. Do the math. This will never be tracked to D.C.
3.There is no excuse why a mill located in the mountains can't figure out how to build a reservoir for hydroelectric power for the factory and surrounding population. And don't get me started on the obvious availability of carbon neutral biomass and biofuels. For shame.
4. See the little factory just above the town of Beryl label (about 10 o'clock). That's a Kingsford BBQ briquette plant.

Peter AltmanMar 10 2009 07:16 PM

tm_54 - thanks for keeping a sharp eye. The terms wet coal ash and coal ash slurry are used interchangeably by the MD Dep't of Environmental Protection, which calls the stuff "coal ash slurry." Its the same stuff, and its the left over after coal is burned.

And while this spill pales compared to the plant discharges you mention, I found it interesting to think that in this case, some portion of the ash spill will make its way to DC, where coal ash regulation has recently become a hot topic.

Dawn StoltzfusMar 11 2009 09:38 AM

Hi there -- this is Dawn Stoltzfus from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Just wanted to give your readers some updated info, a lot of which is in news stories today -- MDE sent out our press release Monday evening before we these details to share.

The good news is there are signs indicating this spill will have limited environmental impact. We will know more after we get a required report due within 5 days from New Page.

- It appears a lot of the coal ash slurry ended up on the streambank, not in the river. The cleanup was due to be completed yesterday.
- Our inspectors found no dead or dying fish or birds at the scene. We don't know about effects on benthic life (worms etc) however.
- Dilution should help. If all the slurry went into the river, which does not appear to be the case, there would be a 43,000 to 1 dilution ratio -- in other words, 43,000 galllons river water to 1 gallon of fly ash.

Again this is preliminary info, we should have more to report as MDE continues to investigate the situation.

Thanks for your discussion about this. MDE testified before Congress last summer about the need for federal standards on coal ash.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Pete Altman’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In