EDEN, N.C. -- Pete Harrison dipped his kayak paddle into a gray stain on the bank of the murky Dan River. He pulled out a sticky gob 4 inches thick.
"That's pure coal ash," he said.
Mr. Harrison, a lawyer with the Riverkeeper Alliance, was kayaking the river Thursday to take water samples, four days after a massive plume of coal ash laced with toxic chemicals spilled into the river from a storage basin at a retired coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy.
Environmentalists and the nation's largest electric utility seem to describe two different rivers after the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The Dan River is either recovering just fine or it has been poisoned by pollution from toxic heavy metals that will last for years.
On Thursday, Duke public relations officers in safety helmets and bright yellow vests showed reporters the company's attempts to plug a ruptured 48-inch stormwater pipe that sent up to 82 tons of toxic coal ash spewing into the river. In calm, soothing tones, they said company tests showed only traces of heavy metals.
From the moment Duke issued its first news release -- 26 hours after the spill was discovered at the storage basin Feb. 2 -- the utility has played down any danger to the public or wildlife. On Friday, a Duke statement was headlined: "Water quality continues to improve."
Environmental groups say otherwise. A map on the Riverkeeper website uses a skull and crossbones to depict coal ash flows on the Dan, inundated by 27 million gallons of contaminated basin water in addition to the ash itself. Riverkeeper says its tests found levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and other heavy metals far exceeding safety standards.
Pointing to patches of coal ash coating the riverbank, Mr. Harrison said the Dan River plant, 130 miles northeast of Charlotte, had been leaking heavy metals for years, contaminating groundwater and the river. "That's just out-in-the-open illegality," he said.
On Sunday, Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said workers continue to dig around the broken part of the pipe so grout can be pumped into it.
After environmental groups threatened to sue Duke for leaking coal ash from basins last summer, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources sued the utility for illegal discharges of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity, from 14 plants in the state, including the Dan River facility.
Environmental groups have accused state regulators of working too closely with Duke. Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said of state regulators: "They're part of the Duke team when they're supposed to be enforcing the law."
Coal ash sediment can erupt in hot summer months, sending a plume of toxic metals back into surface water, Mr. Holleman said. Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, compared it to a volcanic eruption in the water.
The state agency began sampling sediment Friday, a day after the EPA began its own sediment sampling.
Earlier, state water tests revealed levels of arsenic, copper, iron and aluminum above state standards for surface water quality. Officials said levels were improving with subsequent test results. Even so, Mr. Reeder said, "The Dan River does not have a clean bill of health."
The Riverkeeper samples were taken a few yards from the break in the water pipe, where coal ash density is greatest. The Duke and state samples were taken 2 miles downriver.
"They tested in places where they knew they wouldn't find high levels of heavy metals," Mr. Holleman said. Mr. Kritzer said the state tested downstream because that's where the effects of the spill are felt.
The Charlotte Observer contributed.