State health and environment officials met Tuesday night with the people hardest hit by contaminated wells near Duke Energy’s ash ponds.
Health authorities have issued don’t-drink advisories for 39 wells near Salisbury’s Buck power plant. Buck neighbors were joined at the meeting by residents of Belmont, where advisories were issued for more than 100 wells near the Allen plant.
While Duke says indicators don’t point to the plants’ ash ponds as the sources of contamination, state officials were firmly noncommittal.
“This is not a good situation,” said Department of Health and Human Services toxicologist Ken Rudo, who has assessed the health risks of more than 200 wells.
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While the state and Duke say nearly all the well samples meet federal drinking-water standards, no such standards exist for the two chemicals of most concern: Vanadium and hexavalent chromium.
That left state officials to calculate “screening” levels, based on Environmental Protection Agency data, that represent one additional cancer death in 1 million people after a lifetime of exposure.
Duke’s own toxicologist, ash industry expert Lisa Bradley, says the state levels are too low. Adults get many times the vanadium limit simply by eating, she said.
“You have to make your own decisions, but from all the (state) data I have seen, I would have no problem with drinking your well water,” she said.
Rudo defended the screening levels. Of most concern is hexavalent chromium, which might cause cancer.
“There really is no safe level of exposure to a genetoxic carcinogen, and that’s what hex chrome is,” he said.
More definitive answers, on whether the contaminants occur naturally or come from the ash ponds, are expected by late summer. Vanadium is especially prevalent in the area’s soils and groundwater.
In addition to sampling wells near Duke’s power plants, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is testing water in a network of more distant wells that ash ponds aren’t considered likely to affect.
Seven wells are 2 to 3 miles away and separated by rivers from the Buck plant.
Six of the seven wells showed vanadium levels above the North Carolina standard, said state hydrogeologist Bruce Parris. Five of seven had hexavalent chromium higher than the screening level.
“It tells you that when you take samples from the same kind of geology as the Buck plant, you can get similar results,” he said.
Duke is continuing studies of the flow of groundwater near its plants. That’s also expected to help determine whether the contaminants are coming from ash.
Dozens of Duke’s neighbors, meanwhile, are drinking bottled water, pondering the damage to their property values and waiting for a resolution. Lawyers are circling the case.
Tuesday’s nearly three-hour meeting was far calmer than a raucous community meeting in Belmont last week, which Duke representatives left early.
But Joyce Fore, who traveled from Belmont for the Salisbury meeting, remains unconvinced.
“I think there’s things that we need to know more than we’re getting,” said Fore, who’s lived near the Allen plant since 1972. “I’m just not comfortable with what I’m being told.”