Peter St. Onge

Whom to trust in troubled water?

From 2014, a Dukeville couple looks out at Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station.
From 2014, a Dukeville couple looks out at Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station. AP

Last Saturday, Deborah and Ralph Graham were planting flowers in their front yard when the mail carrier pulled in the driveway.

The Grahams have lived in their house for 27 years now, raised two children in the tiny Dukeville community northeast of Salisbury. They don’t remember getting many if any certified letters, so when Ralph signed for it, the couple went inside to the kitchen, where he could read it aloud over some fresh coffee.

The letter, from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told them that tests on their well water showed contaminants above state groundwater standards. They should not use the water for drinking or cooking.

Deborah put her coffee down.

“What are we going to do?” she said Thursday. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”

More than 80 such warnings went out last week to N.C. homeowners with wells located within 1,000 feet of a Duke Energy power plant. The tests were required by state legislation enacted after coal ash spilled from a Duke pond into the Dan River last year.

That’s more than 80 homeowners who now are afraid of the water that comes out of their faucets. It’s more than 80 like the Grahams, who have jugs piling up on countertops and questions accumulating by the day.

There are practical ones like “Is showering really OK?” and “What about washing dishes?” There are bigger ones like “Will we need to move?”

There’s also this one: Who’s on our side?

They’re not believers in Duke, which had sent them another letter back in February saying their water was fine. Even this week, Duke insisted that despite previous testing showing groundwater contamination at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired N.C. plants, that the issues with the wells within a thousand feet were not coal ash related.

“Based on the test results we’ve reviewed thus far, we have no indication that Duke Energy plant operations have influenced neighbors’ well water,” the company said in a statement.

That leaves the Grahams with DENR. And that, so far, isn’t much of a comfort.

This week, the agency issued a news release that had too much straddling and too little explaining about what these homeowners faced.

Yes, their well water has contaminants above state standards, the release said, but most would still be OK by federal standards for municipal water supplies.

Yes, the well contains metals such as iron and manganese that might have come from the coal ash ponds, but those metals also might be naturally occurring.

DENR didn’t say why other tests also showed high levels of vanadium in wells near the Grahams’ home and Buck Steam Station plant, as the Associated Press reported. But officials said additional tests, paid for by Duke, will help determine if the contaminants are coming from Duke or just nature.

What if those tests are less than conclusive? Will the agency be vigilant for the Grahams or give the no-clear-evidence thumbs up for Duke?

The Grahams aren’t confident. DENR has a history of being disturbingly cozy with Duke, including blocking environmentalists from forcing Duke to clean up coal ash ponds.

For the Grahams, though, it’s this: That certified envelope they signed for last Saturday? It contained test results that were completed 52 days earlier. “Somebody knew a month and a half ago that my water was contaminated,” Deborah says. “Why did they wait so long to tell me?”

DENR officials told me Thursday that the delay came from test results being sent to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which did a further analysis of the health risks. If the initial results had included something really bad like fecal coliform, DENR would’ve rushed things.

That’s not a very comforting answer if it’s your water that’s been contaminated.

We sometimes can expect too much out of government, but one of the things we want to know is that it will try to protect us from harm. Doesn’t matter if that harm is naturally occurring or at the hands of someone else.

Now, more than 80 homeowners are wondering if the state is on their side. Thousands of others who live just a little further away from power plants are wondering, too. So are the rest of us, because there will be a next hazard that arrives, be it coal ash or something else, like fracking.

For now, the Grahams and neighbors have contacted a pair of Salisbury attorneys, Mona Lisa Wallace and Bill Graham (who’s unrelated).

Deborah Graham says she’s filling up jugs with water at her mother-in-law’s house. Ralph Graham says he wonders whether he could even sell this house, if he had to. The next round of testing is underway. They’re not sure when the next letter will come.