Article courtesy of Taft Wireback | June 30, 2015 | Greensboro | Shared as educational material
SALISBURY — Residents near Duke Energy coal ash ponds came to a meeting Tuesday evening for answers. Instead, they got conflicting science lessons.
An expert for the utility suggested the contamination levels in their drinking-water wells near storage ponds at power plants in Salisbury and Belmont were not significant health threats.
But state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo said almost any level of one of the problem chemicals, hexavalent chromium, was a “geno-toxic carcinogen” that could cause a variety of cancers.
“This is not a good situation,” Rudo said. “We have contaminated places at various places near the coal ash ponds.
“People take water for granted,” he said. “You turn it on, you expect it to be OK.”
Rudo and Duke’s expert, Lisa Bradley, a nationally known expert in coal ash toxicology, also clashed over the chemical element vanadium. They split over whether the state had issued “do not drink” recommendations to dozens of well owners based on vanadium findings less than those people routinely encounter safely in everyday life.
“So you’re getting more in your daily vitamin than you would drinking water at that screening level,” Bradley said of the state’s trigger level for issuing “do not drink” warnings for vanadium found in wells.
Rowan County health officials held the meeting to answer the questions of area residents who have received warning letters about their wells as part of a statewide effort to sample drinking water wells within 1,500 feet of the “compliance boundary” of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds — the point where the groundwater near an ash pond is required by law to be clean.
Duke Energy has 32 such ash ponds at 14 active and retired coal-fired plants across the state. Wells are being tested near all plants that have them nearby. And the state has issued hundreds of letters to well owners advising them not to drink or cook with the water.
The question is whether the wells have been tainted by naturally occurring chemicals in the soil or by underground leakage from the ash ponds.
The meeting lasted more than three hours and drew about 200 people, including residents of the Dukeville area near Salisbury whose wells were tested and yielded some of those “do not drink” warnings from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where Rudo works.
They live near a retired coal-fired plant, Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station, that has several ash storage ponds that are under investigation. Others in the audience live near the Allen Steam Station near Belmont in Gaston County.
They pressed for answers about how much longer the testing would take, how dangerous the contamination is, how likely coal ash was to blame and why in some cases their wells had not been tested despite repeated promises they would be. Some left angry that they didn’t get what they thought were straight answers.
“Duke has the money and power to hold this thing up for ever and ever,” said Dukeville Road resident Finley Wentling who said he has been relying on bottled water for years rather than drink from his well.
But a neighbor, Mickey Eller, was more hopeful, saying he thought that Duke Energy would take responsibility if the continuing water tests show its coal ash ponds have fouled groundwater flowing into wells in the area.
“I think they’ll do the responsible thing,” said Eller, who lives near the Buck plant and has been trying unsuccessfully for months to get his well tested as part of the state program.
State officials at the meeting told him they would investigate what’s taking so long.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert also spoke to the group, promising the utility will thoroughly investigate the link between any contaminated wells and the nearby Buck Steam Station’s three ash basins that span 134 acres and hold a combined total of 5 million tons of submerged coal ash.
But Culbert said company officials have seen nothing in test results so far that conclusively ties the contaminants found in many wells around the plant to those ponds.
She said the results did not show the high levels of two materials, boron and sulfate, that are usually found at elevated levels in water that has been tainted by coal ash.