Experts have only just started getting a handle on the environmental and health impacts of Sunday’s spill of tens of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash from a shuttered coal plant in North Carolina. But you don’t need to be an expert to see that the spill into Dan River has done a lot of damage.  The pictures, videos, and personal accounts of the spill are astonishing in their grotesqueness. The AP reports:

An Associated Press reporter canoed downstream of the spill at the Dan River Steam Station and saw gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.

[Brian] Williams, a program manager with the Dan River Basin Association, worried that the extent of the damage might not be fully understood for years.

“How do you clean this up?” he said, shaking his head as he churned up the ash with his paddle. “Dredge the whole river bottom for miles? You can’t clean this up. It’s going to go up the food chain, from the filter feeders, to the fish, to the otters and birds and people. Everything in the ecosystem of a river is connected.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Before the spill, Duke Energy had insisted that its coal-ash dump sites posed no environmental threats. Now the company is still trying to figure out how to plug the gaping hole in a pipeline that allowed coal residue to flood out of holding ponds and into the river. From Bloomberg:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Duke’s priority is to stop the leak, Meghan Musgrave, a spokeswoman for the largest U.S. utility owner in Charlotte, said yesterday in a telephone interview. The rate of spillage declined Feb. 4 after the pond emptied and has fluctuated since then because of rain and repairs, Musgrave said. Duke estimates that the pond contained 992,000 tons of ash and that about 10 percent has spilled, she said.

Here are two different views of the mess the spill created: