Earth & Energy

Listen to us, Duke Energy’s neighbors plead

Belmont resident Tami Austin with bottled water stored in her garage because of well contamination.
Belmont resident Tami Austin with bottled water stored in her garage because of well contamination.

Duke Energy’s neighbors are demanding that state regulators listen to the public after hazard rankings of coal ash ponds came out last week.

A draft list of those ponds in November classified all but two of the 32 ponds as of high or intermediate risk. Those would have to be drained and excavated by 2019 or 2024.

But the version released Dec. 31 by the Department of Environmental Quality recommended that four ponds be listed as low risk. DEQ said it needs more data before making recommendations on eight other ponds.

Depending on how that plays out, as many as 12 ponds could remain open until 2029 and their ash might never be removed.

On Wednesday, power plant neighbors with contaminated wells struck back. They released a list of “unifying principles” that call for a transparent process for cleaning up the ponds and independent oversight of contamination assessment.

The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash, supported by seven advocacy groups, formed in July.

Duke says tests show that private wells have not been contaminated by coal ash stored at its power plants, with the exception of the Sutton plant in Wilmington. State regulators agree that the most worrisome contaminants, including cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, occur naturally. But DEQ hasn’t identified the sources of the tainted wells.

Trust of regulators and Duke is low among neighbors in Belmont, near Duke’s Allen plant, said community organizer Amy Brown. More than 100 households there have relied on bottled water since being warned not to drink their well water last spring.

Last week’s announcement from DEQ didn’t help, she added.

“Why would (DEQ) pay these people to do a job if they’re going to change the recommendation?” she said. “Right now, it looks like they’re protecting business over people.”

The process is far from over. State law requires DEQ to release within a month detailed reports that justify the proposed classifications for each pond. Public hearings will follow in each county where ash is stored.

“The information gathered through the public participation process will help inform the department’s final proposed classifications,” the department said last week.

In Belmont, Duke’s neighbors are waiting to have their say.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender