Earth & Energy

DENR tries (again) to explain well tests

Bryant and Sherry Gobble look across an ash pond full of dead trees toward Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station near Salisbury.
Bryant and Sherry Gobble look across an ash pond full of dead trees toward Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station near Salisbury. AP

State environmental officials have, belatedly, posted tips on interpreting the results of well-water tests that drove hundreds of Duke Energy’s neighbors to bottled water.

Tests of nearly 300 private wells near Duke’s coal ash ponds found widespread contamination. Of the 285 results reported by early July, 265 wells had contaminants above state groundwater or interim standards, or health screening levels.

Test results the Department of Environment and Natural Resources began mailing out in April only confused well owners.

While most results showed contamination, DENR reported, nearly all were within federal drinking-water standards. But health advisories that accompanied the results warned most residents not to drink their water.

Many turned to the bottles that Duke and private companies have provided.

On Wednesday, DENR posted a five-page explanation of the tests and health advisories. “This is just part of our effort to provide well owners with a better understanding” of their results, said department spokeswoman Crystal Feldman.

The document does not change the recommendations sent well owners, Feldman said, and copies have not been mailed to them. It’s intended, she said, to offer background and context.

The one-in-a-million cancer risk standard that health officials used in issuing well advisories, we learn, is roughly equal to the odds of accidentally strangling to death.

The document links to a map showing the natural occurrence of vanadium, an element found in many of the tested wells.

And it compares the levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing form also found in many of the wells, in public water systems including Charlotte’s and Raleigh’s. Water in both cities, those numbers show, has concentrations that could trigger don’t-drink advisories in the wells.

Many residents are by now skeptical of anything the state or Duke tells them about potential ash contamination.

But the explanations offered this week could have helped three months ago, when 200 households near the Allen power plant in Belmont and the Buck plant near Salisbury began getting ominous warnings from the state.

Irate neighbors yelled at Duke officials last month at a community meeting in Belmont. At a calmer meeting in Salisbury, attended by state officials, a state toxicologist and one consulting for Duke sparred over the significance of the test results.

Still unanswered, for now: Is the contamination from Duke’s ash? Stay tuned.