On Monday afternoon, Duke Energy reported that the company spilled between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina. “Initial indications are that 22 million gallons of coal ash could already be in the Dan River headed toward the downstream communities of Eden and Danville,” the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) reports.

Residents began noticing that the river appeared black yesterday, and eyewitness reports from Tuesday say the same. Residents of Danville, Virginia withdraw their drinking water just 6 miles downstream from the site of the leak.

The leak was discovered by a security guard who noticed “unusually low water in the ash pond,” EcoWatch reports. Most of the water likely escaped before anyone at Duke took notice. The company later discovered that a 48-inch stormwater pipe underneath the 155-million-gallon ash pond broke on Sunday afternoon, draining tons of coal ash and water into the river.

The first public notification of the spill came from Duke at around 4pm on Monday, 24 hours after the leak was discovered.

According to the DRBA, both of the Dan River coal ash impoundments are unlined. EPA investigators also found ramshackle stormwater drainage pipes with chain link fence falling down around them, as well as other indicators of poor upkeep at the site.

In 2009, Duke Energy’s 53-year-old pond dams were declared a “high hazard” by the state of North Carolina. An EPA investigation found that the bank of the primary ash basin facing the river showed “continued movement, along with seepage on the slope.”

“This disaster shows why the Obama administration needs to stop dragging their feet and enact meaningful regulations for the coal ash industry,” commented Mike Papantonio, host of Ring of Fire and a Levin, Papantonio shareholder. “Instead, they continue to bow to the interests of dirty energy.”

Coal ash contains residuals such as uranium, thorium, and radium. A 2007 report by Scientific American states that coal ash – waste produced by coal plants – contains more radioactivity that natural coal. When coal is burned into ash, “uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.”

“Duke Energy is currently in litigation for alleged pollution at all 14 coal ash dump sites in North Carolina,” according to DRBA.  “The utility has repeatedly claimed that its coal ash storage facilities are safe and comply with environmental protection laws.” Duke Energy is being called upon to address issues of proper storage of toxic coal ash.

“We are very concerned about the potential impact this spill will have on drinking water and the outdoor recreational economy,” said Tiffany Haworth, Executive Director of the Dan River Basin Association.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.