Duke neighbors given mixed signals on wells

A hand is covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River in 2014 as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash.
A hand is covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River in 2014 as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash. AP

Duke Energy’s neighbors, and some local health authorities, are struggling to interpret state test results that show most private wells near ash ponds are contaminated.

Of 117 test results mailed in recent days, 87 exceeded groundwater standards, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Tuesday.

Many of the advisories from the Department of Health and Human Services that accompanied the test results cited concern about vanadium, which can cause diarrhea and nausea.

Vanadium occurs naturally and in coal. Duke disposed of 1.1 million pounds of vanadium in 2013.

Many advisories also urged well owners to retest their water for hexavalent chromium, a form that is known to cause cancer.

But state agencies haven’t explained who will pay for re-testing, said Tad Helmstetler, environmental health supervisor in Rowan County, home of Duke’s Buck power plant.

One commercial lab, Pace Analytical Services, says well tests that include hexavalent chromium would cost homeowners $150. Duke paid for the initial well tests but DENR said it’s working with the health agency to address retests.

“The letters themselves are kind of confusing,” Helmstetler added.

The test results and health advisories refer to different standards. In some cases, they list different contaminants as exceeding a groundwater standard, a health-screening level or being recommended for retesting.

DENR spokesman Drew Elliot acknowledged the complexity of the data but said the state agencies have to follow their regulatory requirements. Information that’s still being developed will form a clearer picture of the contaminants, he said.

The state hopes to post all test result data online on Friday. Tests are underway to learn what metals occur naturally in soil and groundwater around the Duke plants. Those tests, combined with analysis of the extent of groundwater contamination, will determine what contaminants came from ash.

Former Duke employee Tony Hardin, meanwhile, spent Wednesday trying to decipher his test results. Hardin lives near the Allen power plant in Gaston County.

The state health department warned him not to drink or cook with his well water because of concerns over hexavalent chromium and vanadium. But DENR’s letter noted that his water still meets federal drinking water standards.

After working nearly 33 years at Duke’s Catawba nuclear plant, Hardin said he understands that state standards may be more stringent than federal limits. But that didn’t resolve what he saw as conflicting messages.

“I’m kind of getting a little PO’d about it because I’m like, hey, if it’s unsafe to drink, why don’t you just come out and say it’s unsafe to drink?” he said.

“I’m just going to not drink the water, for sure. I’d like to have some sort of resolution, but it looks like it’s not going to be anytime soon. So I guess I’ll be buying water.”

Duke mailed letters this week offering meetings with plant neighbors to discuss the new test results and historic groundwater data at its plants.

“If any neighbors are still concerned, we’re willing to provide water for them temporarily until the groundwater assessments are complete so they have peace of mind during this process,” spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, who analyzed the 53 letters sent to residents near the Allen plant, said nearly all health warnings about well water were based on vanadium levels.

Perkins called Duke’s suggestion that the contamination came from natural sources “the reddest herring” considering the company’s heavy disposal of vanadium.

Duke countered with U.S. Geological Survey maps that show heavy natural concentrations of the metal in western and central North Carolina.

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

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