4 years after coal ash spill, Eden sees the positive

EDEN, N.C. -- It’s been four years since coal ash spilled into the Dan River from a holding area at the Duke Energy plant in Eden.

At the time, the environmental consequences were the unknown factor and with Eden in the national spotlight, so was the economic vitality of a town that uses its rivers as a tourism draw.

But four years removed and the Dan River has a remarkably clean bill of health and so does Eden’s tourism economy.

Business owners like Ashley Latham, a photographer who occasionally uses the rivers for scenic backdrops, say people were nervous about how it would play out. She grew up in Eden and brought her photography business back to her hometown just a few years before the spill.

“As soon as I introduce myself and where I was from, that was the very first thing somebody asked me about,” Latham said.

She knows it could have easily been the kind of disaster that would cause people to stay away.

“A lot of our clients request river portraits. It's a beautiful, scenic area. Once they understood that the coal ash spill did not have an effect on getting in the river and still using it, it did turn into a positive.”

Eden Director of Economic Development Mike Dougherty says the city took the opportunity to reboot and entice people to visit, giving the Dan River a brand which it never had before.

People in Eden love the area rivers, including downstream from the spill on the Dan River where it could have been a worst-case scenario but wasn't.

“It basically there's not been any groundwater issues, the farmers are OK, the land's fine,” Dougherty said.

People here think things are better than they may have been without that splash of bad publicity.

“It has been a really nice outcome, Duke Energy stepping up and providing some resources to enrich this area even more with greenways and trailways," Latham said.

And the proof is in the numbers; 2016 was the best year on record for hotel tax revenue in the city of Eden.