Tami and Alan Austin and their three sons moved into a handsome brick home last December. Their happiness lasted until April.
A letter they received said the wells of their water provider, Aqua North Carolina, were contaminated and had been issued a don’t-drink advisory. The chemicals included hexavalent chromium, which can cause cancer.
It’s hard to imagine life without one of its most basic resources. But the plight of more than 100 households near Duke Energy’s Allen power plant in Gaston County offers a glimpse.
It shows that the future of the region’s water supply depends not only on its abundance, but on whether the water can be trusted.
Toxic chemicals called PCBs have contaminated fish in lakes Norman, Wylie and Mountain Island, and some creeks feeding the Catawba are tainted by fecal bacteria. State assessments list dozens of potential contamination risks to Charlotte’s water supply.
State officials are trying to learn whether contaminants found in private wells came from Allen’s coal ash ponds. Duke says its groundwater tests indicate the contaminants occur naturally.
Aqua says the water is safe, Tami Austin said. A state toxicologist told her it might not be.
So for the past eight months, and into an open-ended future, the Austins’ lives have revolved around the bottled water stacked in their garage.
“It’s crazy,” Austin said. “You don’t know how much you miss your water until you don’t have it.”
Water for coffee comes from five-gallon jugs the family refills at a local health store. Water for chicken soup? The gallon size Duke supplies. Water for rinsing, and re-rinsing, vegetables, brushing teeth, watering the dog and the other endless reasons to reach for a faucet comes from 20-ounce Dasani bottles.
The Austins let their garden dry up rather than irrigate it with water for which they still pay $60 to $80 a month.
“We’re all at each other’s throats,“ said Tami Austin, who is 39 and works at the Freightliner truck plant in Mount Holly. Alan Austin is a Charlotte firefighter.
“We’ve never felt settled here. You think this going to be your home, but it’s to the point where you don’t even want to be here. It’s more than you can handle some days.”
The two youngest boys, Ayden and Cal, come home sweaty after football practice. Showers are taken daily at the house of Tami Austin’s in-laws, who live two miles away and have city water.
“I’m sure they’re happy to see us,” she said, “but not at 9:30 at night.”
Duke says it will continue to supply the neighborhood with water as groundwater studies continue this fall. Deliveries may stop, the company says, if it becomes convinced Allen is not the source of well contamination.
Two neighbors have already lost the sale of their homes over the stigma of contamination, Austin said.
Her family, she said, will drink their water only when state officials – not Duke – convince them it is safe. “I don’t trust anything that they say at this point,” she said of Duke.
Aqua North Carolina tells customers that its water meets state and federal standards. President Tom Roberts said he’s frustrated that the standards the state applied during its groundwater probe are stricter than for municipal systems.
“It’s a very confusing message, very frustrating to us professionally,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 35 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such crossed messages coming out of regulators.”
Carolina native Bruce Henderson, who has covered environmental issues for the Observer for 20 years, spent months researching water-supply challenges across the Carolinas.
His four-part report:
Sunday: The Catawba River isn’t forever. The stresses from growth, drought and the river’s crucial role in power generation are formidable.
Monday: The law governing water usage in North Carolina is an echo of a medieval era, and it creates obstacles for growing cities.
Tuesday: One family’s story reminds us all of what is essential and yet often taken for granted: a reliable, safe water source.
Wednesday: Six current and future water challenges for the Carolinas and possible solutions, including what you can do.