Ash at Duke Energy plant is risky, Gaston County neighbors say

Coal ash hearing

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins on coal ash risks at Allen power plant.
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Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins on coal ash risks at Allen power plant.

Living near Duke Energy’s ash ponds is riskier than state health and environmental officials think, Belmont residents said at a public hearing Tuesday night.

About 200 people filled a Gaston College auditorium for a hearing on risk classifications that will determine how and when the two ash ponds at the Allen power plant are closed.

The hearing followed an about-face by state officials who had issued don’t-drink advisories to 424 well owners nearly a year ago, most of them because levels of two elements were potentially unsafe.

It also came days after a state commission that was to play a key oversight role in closing Duke Energy’s 32 ash ponds was dissolved.

Department of Environmental Quality officials heard frequent references to both Tuesday night.

“I’m not a doctor or a toxicologist, but (state toxicologist Ken) Rudo is, and he told me not to drink the water,” Allen neighbor John Teague said. “Then I got a letter from (assistant environment secretary) Tom Reeder saying it’s all right to drink the water. Well, I’m not going to believe Tom Reeder, I’m going to believe Dr. Rudo.”

DEQ proposed a low-to-intermediate risk classification for Allen’s two ponds, as it awaits more data, but depicts risks to groundwater and surface water as low.

A final finding that Allen is low risk could let Duke drain and cap or stabilize ash in the ponds without the expense and time required to excavate it.

Many of the more than 24 speakers before 7:30 p.m. told state officials to rate the plant as of intermediate to high risk, ensuring the ash would be removed. Many also expressed skepticism that Duke isn’t responsible for their contaminated wells, as the company says.

“It feels like they’re grading their own homework, and I don’t think that’s right,” said resident Brad Drake.

“Duke says it’s not responsible for contamination of our water,” added ash pond neighbor Bill Collins. “Who believes that?”

Duke again defended its work, saying it would be guided by science and engineering in closing its ponds and would protect people and the environment. Duke says contaminants in local wells occur naturally.

“We remain committed to each and every community as we move forward in this important work,” district manager Tim Gause said.

Last spring the state advised more than 100 well owners who live near Allen not to drink their water, mostly because hexavalent chromium and vanadium were found in their wells. Hexavalent chromium may cause cancer.

State officials’ letters to well owners, dated March 11, said that the advice was overly cautious. After a review of how other states and federal agencies regulate the elements, the letter said, “we have now concluded the water out of your well is as safe as the majority of public water systems in the country.”

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins challenged that characterization.

Tests of private wells near Allen averaged 1.44 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium, he found, compared to the .07 ppb average Charlotte Water reported from 2013 to 2015. The state used a screening level of .07 ppb last year in assessing health risks.

The city of Belmont’s tests of its own water found no hexavalent chromium, he said.

Perkins said N.C. officials have “abandoned” the health standards that led to the don’t-drink advisories. “Imagine if in Flint, Mich., they tried to change the standard and tell people it’s safe,” he said.

A lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center went further, saying the computer models Duke submitted to state regulators were “pre-programmed” to reach the conclusion that Duke wanted: Groundwater under the ash ponds is moving away from private wells.

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said Duke “stands behind the science and engineering that’s been done for all the ash basins, which is some of the most complex and sophisticated work ever done” in the field.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender