After a long day of reporting, Michael Biesecker sat by himself at a table at Outback Steakhouse in Danville, Va.
“And they brought me a big glass of water,” said Biesecker, a reporter with the Associated Press, in a phone interview with Poynter. “And I knew the water was drawn and treated from the river, and everyone around me was drinking that water.”
That water, he discovered earlier that day, was thick and dirty with toxic coal ash stored in a coal ash pond that had leaked into the Dan River. Biesecker asked the waitress if she’d heard of the spill. She hadn’t. Hardly anyone had.
I need to tell people what’s going on here, he thought. So he wrote fast at that table, with a salad, a baked potato and a bottle of water nearby.
Outside, a 16-foot Mad River Canoe canoe perched above Biesecker’s Mazda CX-9. Clumps of river mud still stuck to the bottom.
HAVE BOAT, WILL REPORT
News broke Monday, Feb. 3, of a spill from one of the coal ash ponds on the banks of the Dan River. Duke Energy issued a press release about the incident, “but it really made it seem like it was not a big deal,” Biesecker said.
He called his editor. We need to go up there, he said, and “because it was a spot on the river, I packed a canoe.”
That Wednesday, Biesecker met AP photographer Gerry Broome. The two weren’t the only ones on the river bank that day. Environmentalists were coming down to see the damage, too. Biesecker and Broome met with canoe guide Brian Williams, who offered to help the two navigate the water. The three paddled downstream, and pretty soon they saw for themselves the real damage from the coal ash spill.
The riverbank looked like a bathtub with a ring of dirt around it. Both Biesecker and Broome describe it that way. Biesecker pushed his paddle into the river and found ash several inches, if not feet, deep.
“That was when it really started to sink in,” Broome said in a phone interview with Poynter.
Biesecker’s story, which ran Feb. 6, described what they found.
Canoe guide Brian Williams dipped his paddle downstream from where thousands of tons of coal ash has been spewing for days into the Dan River, turning the wooden blade flat to bring up a lump of gray sludge.
On the riverbank, hundreds of workers at a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre pond where the toxic ash was stored.
Since the leak was first discovered by a security guard Sunday afternoon, Duke estimates up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water has spilled into the river. Officials at the nation’s largest electricity provider say they cannot provide a timetable for when the leak will be fully contained, though the flow has lessened significantly as the pond has emptied.
TAKE ME THERE
Broome, who shot a photo of a hand covered in sludge left from the spill, said he’s actually gone on much greater adventures for images.
“It was just a peaceful little float,” he said. “But it paid off.”
Since his trip on the Dan River, Broome has gotten calls from other photographers wanting tips on getting similar shots. Other than to just figure it out, he said, be safe is the first tip. Know what you’re doing and where you’re going so you don’t become the story. And know what you’re dealing with legally.
Before they set out onto the river, officials with Duke Energy asked Broome and Biesecker who gave them permission to do so, Broome said. It’s a river, they replied, so no one. But they knew not to stop on Duke Energy property, too.
Those images, Biesecker said, helped move the story along. They showed what was really happening. Biesecker has that same instinct, to go and see and tell. Biesecker, a former Eagle Scout, said that was reinforced by an editor early in his career.
“He would always say, take me there,” he said.
Biesecker, Broome as well as AP reporter Mitch Weiss have done more than take a boat trip onto a dirty river. They’ve continued reporting on the results of the coal ash spill, the state’s lack of enforcement of ground water contamination violations, slap-on-the-wrist settlements and modest fines, and no requirements for Duke Energy to clean up. Biesecker wrote Feb. 19 about 20 subpoenas sent out by federal prosecutors as they widened their investigation following the spill.
Last week, Biesecker covered a press conference where officials walked out.
On Saturday, he and Weiss wrote about the people living in communities that may face similar issues with coal ash dumps.
From inside that canoe, Biesecker and Broome could see for themselves the damage caused by the coal ash spill and the many miles of damage it would continue causing as it moved downstream. And they’re not the only ones reporting on it. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported on a second ruptured pipe at a coal ash pond on the Dan River. On Monday, National Geographic published a story about the economic impact the spill might have.
On Tuesday, Biesecker headed back to Eden, N.C., and the site of the spill. This time, he left his canoe at home in Durham. He plans to wash it thoroughly before using it again.