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A view of North Carolina's Dan River following a leak in a storm pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre coal ash pond operated by Duke Energy. (Photo: File)

North Carolina Residents Warned Not to Drink Water Near Coal Ash Dumps

Test results confirm that 'Duke's coal ash pits are leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater,' says attorney

Deirdre Fulton

North Carolina residents who live near Duke Energy coal ash dumps have been warned by state officials not to drink or cook with water from their wells, after testing showed evidence of heavy metal contamination exceeding state groundwater standards.

The nation's largest electricity company, Duke stores more than 150 million tons of coal ash—a byproduct of burning coal for energy—in 32 dumps at 14 power plants across the state. North Carolina's Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, passed in the wake of the devastating Dan River spill that released 99,000 tons of the toxic sludge, required Duke Energy to contract with private laboratories to collect samples at wells within 1,000 feet of power plants with coal ash ponds.

According to news reports, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Tuesday that tests of 87 of 145 private wells near eight Duke plants found elevated levels of substances including iron, chromium, and vanadium—all naturally occurring elements that are also found in coal ash.

The Associated Press reports that several of the letters sent to homeowners by DENR cited high levels of vanadium, with some readings "as high as 86 times the state groundwater standard." Vanadium is classified as hazardous by federal health officials; Duke's self-reported toxic release inventory from 2011 shows about 1.5 million pounds of vanadium released into the environment from Duke's coal-fired plants that year, with the bulk of it flowing into the company's ash pits.

Despite this, a DENR official said the agency has not "been able to attribute any of [contaminants] to the Duke coal ash ponds yet," and a Duke Energy spokesperson said the contaminants were naturally occurring in local soils. The state will reportedly launch another round of testing to determine the cause of the contamination.

But John Suttles, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center which represents conservation groups seeking cleanup of Duke Energy's leaking coal ash sites in North Carolina, said the test results "confirm what we've been saying all along in court."

"Duke's coal ash pits are leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater," Suttles declared. "According to its own self-reporting, Duke Energy dumps huge amounts of vanadium into its leaking coal ash pits. Vanadium is highly mobile in groundwater so it's not a surprise that it’s showing up in groundwater and nearby drinking water wells. Despite all of this, DENR has suggested that it could be naturally occurring."

Suttles continued, "Any reasonable regulator would stop the source of pollution and require cleanup rather than sweeping it under the rug."

For environmentalists, this week's news from North Carolina underscores the dangers posed by a federal bill aimed at dismantling the EPA's already weak coal ash protections. The bill, sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.V.), would strip the public disclosure portion of the EPA's rules and allow states to take over the permitting process for coal ash disposal site construction, effectively pushing the EPA out of the way. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill last week, and it heads now to the floor of the Republican-controlled House.

But weaker oversight and less transparency will only result in more cases like North Carolina, Southern Environmental Law Center legislative director Nat Mund said in an interview with Common Dreams.

"People don't know now, and they're going to continue to not know, what they're being exposed to," Mund said. "And that's a problem."

Meanwhile, Indy Week notes that Duke Energy's water testing results "come as state officials weigh applications from Duke Energy to dump roughly 3 million tons in abandoned brick mines in Lee and Chatham counties, part of a multi-year plan to dispose of about 100 million tons of the potentially toxic coal byproduct in North Carolina over the next 15 years."

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