They’ve used bottled water to drink, cook, bathe for 1,000 days. When will taps flow again?

Some residents of Belmont, near the Allen power plant, have relied on bottled water since early 2015. Duke Energy is required to extend water lines or install filtration systems to more than 500 homes in the Charlotte area by Oct. 15.
Some residents of Belmont, near the Allen power plant, have relied on bottled water since early 2015. Duke Energy is required to extend water lines or install filtration systems to more than 500 homes in the Charlotte area by Oct. 15. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Some Charlotte-area neighbors of Duke Energy power plants are marking a depressing milestone: 1,000 days of relying on bottled water to avoid using well water that might be unsafe.

Duke says the coal ash it stores at the plants isn’t the source of contamination found in local wells. State officials waffled, initially warning residents in early 2015 not to drink their water, then later rescinding that advice.

Now more than 500 neighbors of Duke power plants on Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and in Rowan County are waiting for Duke to finish installing miles of water lines, ordered by state legislators, that will connect them to municipal systems.

Legislators in 2016 ordered the water lines, or installation of filtration systems in some cases, to be completed near Duke power plants statewide by Oct. 15. Until then, many Charlotte-area residents will continue to drink, cook and bathe in the bottled water that Duke gives them.

Environmental advocates with Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club, working with the Alliance of Carolinians Against Coal Ash, say the state should adopt a more stringent safety standard for hexavalent chromium. The possibly cancer-causing form of the metal was found in many wells near Duke’s ash ponds but also in groundwater far from the ponds. The advocates add that some residents with contaminated wells can’t connect to municipal water lines because they live more than a half-mile from the ponds, a limit set by the legislature.

Cleveland County resident Roger Hollis, a 69-year-old retired construction supervisor who lives near Duke’s Rogers Energy Complex, is among them.

“I live outside the half-mile limit but they do not supply me with water,” he said. “My well is contaminated, but I’m having to live off what I get – bottled water or use the well water. And I’ve got a couple of horses, so I can’t completely rely on bottled water.”

Hollis said tests paid for by ACT and WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, found hexavalent chromium and other contaminants in his well. A rural water company plans to extend water lines to some of his neighbors but not to his home, Hollis said. And since he lives a mile from the Rogers plant, Duke didn’t have to offer to connect him to a municipal line.

“I wish the higher-ups at Duke could live like for this a week: drink water like this, take showers like this,” Hollis said. “I think it would make a difference, but I’m not sure it would. They all feel sorry for us, but it hasn’t done any good.”

Duke Energy says a class-action lawsuit that residents filed against the company last August is slowing down its work to supply them with clean water.

“Unfortunately, it appears that attorneys are encouraging some well owners to delay the process” by not returning easements or setting up accounts with municipal utilities, Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said. “In other cases, neighbors simply haven’t replied or taken the steps needed. This stalls the very solutions these neighbors have been advocating so hard for and delays completion for their community.”

Statewide, Culbert said, only 16 of the 99 property easements that are needed to install water lines have been granted.

More than 90 percent of the property owners near the Allen power plant on Lake Wylie, Buck plant in Rowan County and Marshall plant on Lake Norman have opted to connect to municipal water lines. Seventeen of those 559 residents want water treatment systems, while 12 took neither option and 10 haven’t responded.

Duke has appealed again to undecided residents, Culbert said, and has asked the state Department of Environmental Quality for guidance on how to address unresponsive well owners.

Duke says the timetable set by legislators was already forcing it to complete in months what would normally take years of work. Twelve miles of water mains and service lines will have to be installed near Allen, where construction began two months ago, and 9.5 miles of lines near Buck.

The lawsuit filed in August challenged Duke’s offer to make $5,000 “goodwill” payments to residents in return for waiving their rights to sue. The residents also seek compensation for damage to their property and the inconvenience they suffered from state warnings about the safety of their wells.

Duke has asked the court to dismiss the suit. Among other legal arguments, Duke says its coal ash hasn’t contaminated neighbors’ wells. It contends that conflicting messages from state regulators harmed the residents.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender