By Sarah Kellogg
Jeff Keiser and his wife, Kim, have lived in a small neighborhood in Belmont, N.C., near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen power plant, for 15 years. Although their community is surrounded on three sides by coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, the Keisers have used their tap water just like anyone else. But that changed in late April when they and their neighbors started receiving letters from the state health department advising them not to drink or cook with their water.
“It was pretty frightening for us to hear all of our neighbors getting do not drink letters from the state,” recalls Keiser. “We had been drinking the water with no worry at all, now we’re scared for our health.”
The do-not-drink orders were a result of mandatory water tests conducted by Duke Energy and required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act. As of late May, wells had been tested near eleven of Duke’s fourteen coal ash pond locations. Of the 207 wells tested by May —all located within 1,000 feet of the ponds —191 were deemed unsafe to drink. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens. The Belmont community received 83 do-not-drink orders, the most of any location.
Duke Energy claims that the elements found in the wells are naturally occurring and not a result of groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds, although the utility agreed to supply affected residents with bottled water until the source of the contamination is determined.
Keiser and other residents feel certain that Duke is to blame for their bad water. “I do feel like it’s their ash ponds that have created this whole mess,” he says. His neighbor, Barbara Morales, who also received a do-not-drink notice, told the L.A. Times, “Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water, but they need to take responsibility.”
Two weeks after the first round of water tests was released, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to nine violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its North Carolina coal ash sites and agreed to pay a $102 million fine. The lawsuit was unrelated to the well water results, but rather was the result of a federal investigation that began after Duke spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014.
Separate lawsuits against Duke, filed by the state in 2013 for violations of the Clean Water Act at all 14 of the utility’s North Carolina coal ash sites, are still pending.
Duke’s guilty verdict and the do-not-drink orders come on the heels of a controversial wastewater discharge permit renewal for three of Duke Energy’s N.C. plants, including G.G. Allen. The state’s Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke charge that the utility is violating the discharge permits at all of their plants due to toxic seeps from their coal ash ponds leaking into surface water and drinking water. Although the state is suing Duke Energy for the violations, it issued new draft permits that would make all current and future seeps from the coal ash ponds legal. As of publication, the permits have not been finalized, but hundreds of citizens submitted comments in April urging the state to limit the amount of coal ash pollution Duke Energy can discharge.
In Belmont and other communities, residents continue to process the news that their well water is undrinkable. “If we wanted to move, we’d feel obligated to let the purchasers of the house know about the issue with Duke and the drinking water in our neighborhood,” Keiser reflects. “That is very scary because this is our most valuable asset.”