Do not drink: Local residential wells may be tainted, state testing reveals

WHAT’S BEEN SEEPING INTO MY DRINKING WATER? Eleven private wells sit within a quarter-mile of Duke Energy’s Skyland coal-ash ponds, and recent state tests have shown possible contamination in two of them. Photography flight courtesy of SouthWings

Two residential wells near Duke Energy’s coal-fueled power plant in Arden may not be safe to drink from, recent state testing has shown, and further sampling is needed.

Similar results have been found across North Carolina: Hundreds of residents draw their drinking and cooking water from wells that sit within 1,000 feet of one of Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash ponds. Nearly a dozen such wells are in Buncombe County.

The findings are part of a statewide effort to determine how many wells pose health risks and, of those, how many have been contaminated by the coal ash ponds, says Jamie Kritzer, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Produced when coal is burned as fuel, the ash contains a host of concentrated toxins, ranging from arsenic to vanadium. It also raises the pH of groundwater, which can corrode pipes and affect the taste.

As of mid-May, DENR had evaluated four of the 11 Buncombe County wells identified for this round of testing. All four exceeded state standards for pH, suspended solids and sulfates; two were deemed safe for human use. But in the two tagged for further sampling, state labs reported the presence of hexavalent chromium, which can cause health problems ranging from asthma to kidney damage to cancer.

More wells will be tested when the agency expands the sweep to include those with 1,500 feet of a Duke coal ash pond, Kritzer reports, adding, “We’ve never done something as broad as this.”

To date, DENR has identified 345 wells within 1,000 feet of one of Duke’s ponds and sampled more than half of them. Some owners declined the testing, Kritzer explains.

Of the 207 wells tested as of May 19, 191 exceeded state standards, triggering an assessment by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. So far, the agency has sent 166 “do not drink” notices to well owners; half concerned wells around Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C., near Charlotte.

Whenever there’s coal ash contamination, the utility must provide an alternative water source, adds Kritzer.

The company’s been doing that, notes spokesperson Catherine Butler. The state’s studies will help determine the origin of contamination, the direction of groundwater flow, and the best cleanup approaches as the ponds are excavated and closed, she says. “We can appreciate how troublesome this has been for neighbors, and we want to do the right thing to assist while more information becomes available,” Butler says.

Not a new problem

In 2013, a well in Arden was one of three contaminated by coal ash, says Amelia Burnette, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “A ‘do not drink’ letter was sent, and Duke Energy was required to supply water to the residents,” she reports.

“We are finalizing agreements with these residents to extend the local municipal water line [to them] in the coming months,” says Butler.

Earlier in 2013, Burnette’s organization filed a lawsuit against Duke, claiming it had illegally discharged contaminants into the French Broad River from its Buncombe plant. The Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance and MountainTrue joined the suit, aimed at forcing the company to clean up its coal ash. “You can’t dump [toxins] wherever you want: That’s the Clean Water Act,” says French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of MountainTrue.

That suit is pending, but the state also sued Duke that year for violating the Clean Water Act and state groundwater-protection laws. The utility recently pleaded guilty to similar violations and agreed to a $102 million fine in connection with a catastrophic February 2014 Dan River coal ash spill. In addition, the company announced plans to convert its Buncombe plant to natural gas and install a solar farm. According to Butler, the new plant will come online in late 2019 or early 2020.

That’s good news, says Carson. “Years ago, we tried to figure out who was still on drinking wells” near the Asheville plant, he reveals.

Interns went door to door, identifying seven wells within a half-mile of the ponds. Two were in between the ponds and the French Broad River, Carson recalls, and one tested high for iron, manganese, arsenic and boron. Elevated levels of those naturally occurring elements make the water unsafe for consumption and are “fingerprints” of coal ash contamination.

Both Burnette and Carson credit staff at DENR’s Asheville office with initiating the testing program in 2012, before the Dan River spill spurred state legislators to pass the Coal Ash Management Act. The law requires Duke to clean up its coal ash ponds, beginning with those at the Buncombe, Sutton, Riverbend and Dan River plants.

Burnette says she’s keeping an eye on the process as DENR completes its risk assessments. There are differences between federal and state standards, she notes, and all the labs involved should use the same testing protocol.

The Coal Ash Management Act calls for closing down the ponds by 2019, but Sen. Tom Apodaca of Henderson County, a co-sponsor of the law, has proposed a bill that would give Duke more time as it converts the Asheville plant to natural gas.

“You can’t ask people to wait [years] before getting safe water,” says Burnette.

Meanwhile, even if all of Duke’s coal-fired plants were closed today, more than 150 million tons of ash would remain in N.C., says Carson. “That’s why we [started] the Beyond Coal campaign, to stop burning it and continuing to create coal ash.”

Burnette says Americans’ demand for cheap electricity has driven our dependence on coal, which fuels 37 percent of power plants in the Southeast, and its true environmental and human health costs haven’t been taken into account.

“At Asheville, Duke Energy has committed to remove the coal ash from its old lagoons to dry, lined storage, and it has announced plans to close the coal-fired units altogether,” she continues.

“In the meantime, it should ensure that impacted wells receive alternative water supplies and that the groundwater is remediated and restored.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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