For Immediate Release


Molly Haigh,, 907-750-1999
Alec Saslow,, 720-319-4948

Waterkeeper Alliance

Investigation Finds Contamination, Health Concerns at Duke Energy Coal-Fired Power Plant

Toxic heavy metals found in drinking water wells next to coal ash dump at Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station in Rowan County, North Carolina

RALEIGH - Waterkeeper Alliance today released the results of a water testing investigation, first reported by this Associated Press Big Story, including video. The AP story highlighted serious health issues among people living near three large coal ash disposal pits at Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station, a retired coal-fired power plant on the Yadkin River in Rowan County, North Carolina. The health issues include a long history of cancer diagnoses and other serious ailments, such as birth defects.

Many residents living around the Buck Station, located in Rowan County NC, have begun to question whether the health issues are related to toxic heavy metals leaking from Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments, contaminating groundwater in the area that supplies private wells in the community.  Since 2008, Duke Energy reported 350 exceedances of North Carolina groundwater standards at Buck, for contaminants including boron, chromium, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, pH and sulfate.  The exceedances ranged from 1.1 to 25 times higher than state standards. 

Twice this April and again in May, Waterkeeper Alliance staff collected water samples from five private wells that provide drinking water to homes located less than 1,000 feet from the Buck coal ash ponds.  The Yadkin Riverkeeper also sampled bright orange seepage oozing out of the side of one of the coal ash dumps onto the adjacent property. was also collected from a seep leaking onto private property. The samples were analyzed by nationally-accredited laboratories to screen for 12 heavy metals commonly associated with coal ash, including lead and chromium. See this interactive map to view where samples were collected and how close homes are to the ash ponds.


Total lead in two of the five private drinking water wells measured 58 parts per billion (ppb) and 19 ppb, or 3.8 and 1.2 times higher than the NC groundwater standard of 15 ppb. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires EPA to determine maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) that reflect pollutant levels in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur, with an adequate margin of safety. The MCLG for lead is zero, indicating that lead is unsafe to consume in any amount.


Waterkeeper Alliance also analyzed samples for hexavalent chromium, a particularly toxic form of chromium made famous by Erin Brockovich after the substance leaked out of unlined disposal pits and poisoned groundwater in Hinkley, California. 

Hexavalent chromium was detected in all 5 private drinking water wells tested by Waterkeeper Alliance. Levels ranged from .11– 6.7 ppb.  While there is no federal or state drinking water standard specifically for hexavalent chromium, the state of California has proposed a public health goal of .02 ppb, based on data indicating that even minute quantities of the substance can pose severe risks to human health. The Waterkeeper Alliance test results ranged between 5.5 to 335 times higher than the proposed California public health goal.  Hexavalent chromium, the type found in private wells around the Buck coal ash ponds, is a potent carcinogen, posing risks of bone, prostate, stomach, genital, renal, and bladder cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.


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A 2006 study by the Electric Power Research Institute, coal combustion leachate (the liquid collected from wells, ponds or seeps at coal ash dumps) was tested at 29 coal ash landfills and ponds across the United States. That study determined that hexavalent chromium can comprise as much 97–100 percent of the total chromium found in coal ash leachate, and that low pH can contribute to the conversion of the less toxic trivalent chromium to the more toxic hexavalent species. Duke Energy repeatedly reported pH levels below groundwater standards at each of the Buck monitoring wells where they detected chromium at the compliance boundary.

Under North Carolina law, operators of leaking sites that are contributing to exceedances of groundwater standards at the regulatory “compliance boundary” must "take immediate action to eliminate the source or sources of contamination … and implement an approved corrective action plan for the restoration of ground water quality." In spite of Duke Energy’s hundreds of violations of the groundwater standards at the compliance boundary around the ash ponds at Buck, the state of NC has consistently refused to make Duke Energy clean up contaminated ash ponds by incorrectly asserting that NC law did not require “immediate action to eliminate the source of the contamination.” 

In March, however, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled in favor of Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups after they sued the state for failing to apply the law to Duke’s leaking coal ash pits across the state. The state joined Duke in an appeal of the ruling illustrating that they continue to work in concert with Duke Energy to help them avoid compliance with the NC law that requires clean up of ash ponds. On May 16, the NC Court of Appeals denied the request by the state of NC and Duke Energy to stay the order by Judge Ridgeway to take “immediate action to eliminate the source of contamination” at all Duke Energy coal ash ponds in NC.

Leaking contamination

Waterkeeper Alliance and Yadkin Riverkeeper found highly-toxic water leaking out of the ground on the side of a coal ash lagoon onto the property owned by Ron and JoAnn Thomas, less than 500 feet from one of the Duke Energy coal ash ponds at Buck. The seepage contained: 6.2 times the accepted standard for lead, 9.7 times the accepted standard for chromium, 562 times the accepted standard for manganese, 1,086 times the accepted standard for iron, and 1.5 times the accepted standard for Boron.

On May 14, NC Senators Tom Apodoca and Phil Berger introduced Governor Pat McCrory’s weak and ineffective coal ash bill that does not require clean up of all leaking Duke Energy coal ash ponds. “North Carolina lawmakers should not be picking winners and losers. They need to show real leadership by making Duke Energy clean up all of its leaking coal ash ponds which are putting NC families and waterways at risk,” said Dean Naujoks, Yadkin Riverkeeper.   “Once communities across the state realize some elected officials opted not to include Duke’s toxic coal ash ponds for removal, NC citizens are going to demand full clean up. 

Naujoks praised Senators Stan Bingham (R) and Gene McLaurin (D) and Representative Harry Warren (R) for putting politics aside and urging the state senate leadership to include Buck coal ash ponds in legislation for removal. Naujoks also sharply condemned Senator Andrew Brock and Representative Carl Ford, who represent Rowan County, for refusing to commit to support legislation that would clean up Duke’s coal ash ponds around the Buck plant.

“All North Carolinians should contact their local state legislators and demand that every coal ash pond in the state stop contaminating communities by passing a law that requires removal of their contents to dry lined containment structures away from drinking water wells, lakes and rivers,” said Ms. Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper alliance Global Coal Campaign Coordinator. “Only when these highly dangerous and polluting facilities are secured away from water will their immediate threat to public health and the environment be addressed.”


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Founded in 1999 by environmental attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and several veteran Waterkeeper Organizations, Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement of on-the-water advocates who patrol and protect over 1.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. Learn more at: or follow @Waterkeeper on Twitter and Facebook.

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