As well tests continue, power plant neighbors live on bottled water

Living on bottled water

Video by Bruce Henderson / The Charlotte Observer
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Video by Bruce Henderson / The Charlotte Observer

The pallet of bottled water in Amy Brown’s driveway hints at the new routines in the shadow of Duke Energy’s Allen power plant.

Since the state warned in April against drinking from their well, life in the Brown household has been measured in the 20-ounce bottles that Duke delivers every two weeks.

Three bottles fill a pot to boil corn on the cob. Two make macaroni and cheese. More bottles – two for each day – line up in the bathroom to be used for brushing teeth.

“My living room is full of bottled water cases,” Brown said. “It’s not how you want your home to look, but it’s what I have to do.”

Duke is now supplying 140 North Carolina households with water as state officials test and retest private wells that could be contaminated by coal ash.

Of the 207 results back through May 19, 191 wells exceeded state groundwater or interim standards. State health authorities have advised their owners not to drink from 166 of those wells.

It will be fall before separate analyses determine the flow of groundwater around Duke’s 32 ash ponds. Those analyses, combined with studies of where potentially toxic metals found in ash also occur naturally, will show whether the wells were contaminated by ash.

The uncertainty was compounded by a flawed initial round of well tests.

Many of the commercial labs that residents were allowed to choose couldn’t determine precise levels of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. The contaminant prompted resampling of dozens of wells.

Duke says its ash isn’t to blame for the contaminated wells. The company says boron and sulfate – telltale indicators of ash – have not been found at high levels in the private wells.

“Our approach is to answer the needs of these neighborhoods,” said spokeswoman Erin Culbert. “Even though all signs point to it not being from the ash basins, it’s important for us to be a good neighbor and provide alternative water until we have completed these studies.”

Until then, dozens of households will suffer a summer of worry and bottled water.

“It’s very hard. Very hard,” said Sherry Gobble, whose family lives in the Dukeville community near the Buck power plant in Rowan County. Health warnings have been issued for 35 wells there.

A test found hexavalent chromium in their well a year ago. Since then, the Gobbles have trekked to her father’s home 25 minutes away to fetch and bring home gallons of water.

Duke now delivers bottled water, but Gobble wants the company to connect her rural home to a water line 2 miles away.

“This is not just me and my family. We are all in a holding pattern,” she said of her power-plant neighbors. “It doesn’t make the state of North Carolina look too good, honestly, and it doesn’t look make Duke look good.”

Duke has previously agreed to extend a water line to one community, near Wilmington, that is in the path of contaminated groundwater. Groundwater studies will determine whether that’s warranted near other power plants, Culbert said.

Questions remain

No neighborhoods have been affected more than those near Allen, which towers over Lake Wylie. Eighty-three of the 86 wells tested there got don’t-drink advisories.

Amy Brown and her husband, Eddie, say they never would have bought their brick ranch on a quiet street eight years ago if they’d had any hint of water problems.

Now, she says, “Who would want to buy this house? We’re going to be known as the ash pond people.”

The mom of sons ages 2 and 9, Brown worries about the well water she once used to cook the grits and oatmeal the boys love. She’s halted their splashes in the backyard pool.

Not satisfied with the official response, Brown took it upon herself to knock on doors in her neighborhood with information on getting bottled water.

“I will not be silenced. I am their voice,” she said of her boys. “I want to know why my water’s not safe.”

As that question hangs, the contaminated wells have knit together power-plant communities in new ways.

The bottles stacked in Brown’s driveway didn’t come from Duke. Niagara Bottling in Mooresville donated the 1,000-gallon pallet last week. The local Lowe’s store provided a forklift to move the load.

On Thursday, the Browns paid the favor forward. Because Duke supplies their family, the Niagara water went to the Heather Glen community across Southpoint Road.

The 35 homes in that neighborhood got letters from their community well service Tuesday advising them to get their water tested. While Heather Glen is farther from Allen, it borders private property on which tons of ash were deposited years ago.

“There was a lot of confusing wording,” said Dean Thomas, whose wife has battled bladder cancer twice since they moved to Heather Glen. “It’s scary because we don’t know what we’ve been going through the last 15 years.”

Larry Mathis, who leads the homeowners’ association, said his wife thought the water had an odd taste years ago. “Since then, we’ve been buying bottled water and ice,” he said. “Still, you’re bathing in it.”

Testing a ‘challenge’

A state law passed last year required that private wells within 1,000 feet of ash ponds be tested beginning in January. In keeping with that law, letters to residents listed several commercial labs they could choose from.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources prepared for tests that would look for metals and other contaminants above state water-quality standards.

As testing began in January, DENR says, the Department of Health and Human Services urged that it include analysis of hexavalent chromium. But the health agency set a low “screening” level that most labs were not equipped to detect.

“We recognized all along that that was going to be a challenge,” Duke’s Culbert said. Duke, she said, “would like to have a better understanding” of how DHHS settled on the low screening level.

Health and Human Services this week referred most questions to DENR. Spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre said of hexavalent chromium that “DHHS’ goal is to help residents make the most health protective choices for their families.”

Hexavalent chromium is usually produced by industrial processes but also leaches from coal ash. It may occur naturally.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over coal ash, says it has unsuccessfully pushed state officials to also test wells for radioactive elements. The center unearthed 2009 records referring to high levels of a radiation indicator at the Buck power plant.

A 1998 report to Congress by the Environmental Protection Agency characterized radioactive elements in coal ash as a low risk. Duke says those elements are not significantly higher in ash than in rocks and soil.

A second round of sampling will use only two labs, both able to detect low levels of hexavalent chromium. The new round will also expand testing to wells within 1,500 feet of ash ponds.

Susan Massengale of DENR’s Division of Water Resources said the well tests and separate studies on the depth and direction of contaminants in groundwater are “pieces of the puzzle” being fitted together.

“If there is a connection between what’s in their well and Duke, and the connection can be proven, then ultimately Duke will pay for any improvements to drinking water, whether through bottled water, filtering systems or connections to other systems,” Massengale said.

“If someone feels they want to put in a filtering system now, I’d do what I could to protect my family and save my receipts.”