The community of Eden is usually paradise. It’s nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge north of Winston-Salem and Greensboro along the bucolic Dan River. However, this week,  it was also home to the third largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history. Duke Enerrgy’s coal-fired power plant spilled 80,000 tons of coal ash—enough to fill 32 Olympic swimming pools—into the Dan River, endangering water supplies for thousands of area residents. Coal ash is laced with toxic heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic, which persist for decades.

 The river, grey and filled with sludge for miles downstream of the spill, may be severely compromised in its ability to support fishing, recreation, and aquatic life for years to come. It’s especially tragic because of the efforts that Eden has been making to grow it’s outdoor recreation opportunities. Eden has been a popular new recreation spot in the Southeast, and the Dan River is a big reason for drawing outdoor enthusiasts there.

A postal worker in Eden first alerted officials that the river was running black. It took 24 hours for Duke Energy and the Department of Natural Resources to acknowledge the spill, which still is not fully contained.

Coal ash ponds are ticking time bombs. They are usually located beside major waterways and they are largely unregulated. Leaks and spills are inevitable, and Southern Appalachia has already been hit hard by coals ash spills in recent years.

Whatever you think about coal-fired energy, it seems absurd to dump coal ash in unlined ponds beside rivers that supply our drinking water. Most residents of the South live within 100 miles of a coal-fired power plant and get their water from a waterway threatened by a coal ash pond.

View aerial footage of the Dan River spill here.