MOORESBORO, NC (WBTV) - New tests found water wells with elevated levels of a toxin commonly associated with coal ash in water wells located up to a mile away from a nearby coal ash pond.
The test results come as homeowners and environmental advocates urge Governor Pat McCrory to veto a bill that would require Duke Energy to provide an alternate water supply to houses within a half mile of Duke's 24 coal ash ponds located across the state.
The bill, which was pushed through the state legislature last week, would also give the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality the ability to require Duke to provide water to additional homes that DEQ determines to be impacted by the coal ash.
In exchange, the utility would likely not have to excavate a majority of its ash basins. Instead, it would be able to de-water many of the basins and cap them in place.
Hexavalent chromium found nearly a mile away
On Your Side Investigates paid a lab to test water from six wells near the Cliffside Steam Station in western Cleveland County.
The water was analyzed by Pace Labs, the same lab that tested the water for the state prior to the 2015 'do not drink' letters being sent. Samples were collected by WBTV staff using Pace equipment and in accordance with procedures outlined by the lab.
We started investigating after neighbors called us with concerns their water may be contaminated by a toxic element called hexavalent chromium, the same element that was the subject of the movie Erin Brockavich.
Neighbors' concern was piqued when state health regulators sent letters to homes near coal ash ponds across the state in 2015 advising homeowners not to drink the water coming from their wells. In some neighborhoods, like the area near the Cliffside plant, some homes on a given road got the 'do not drink' letter but others didn't because they were outside of the 1,500 foot testing zone.
Duke paid to ship truckloads of bottled water to the affected homeowners.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services advised homeowners whose wells were found to have more than .07ppb hexavalant chromium to not drink their water.
The 'do not drink' order was rescinded by health and environmental regulators this spring, amid new claims that the limit used in issuing the order was too strict.
Four of the six wells tested by On Your Side Investigates had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium above the .07ppb standard set in 2015
One well, more than .8 miles away from the Cliffside coal ash pond, was found to have .29ppb hexavalent chromium; more than four times the limit used by DHHS in 2015.
Another well, located just under a half-mile from the Cliffside coal ash pond, was found to have .66ppb hexavalent chromium; more than nine times the limited used by DHHS in 2015.
"We know what the problem is: the wells are contaminated. We know where it's coming from: Duke Power. And we do know how to cure it," neighbor Roger Hollis said.
Hollis spoke with On Your Side Investigates late one morning in June as nearly a dozen neighbors sat in his yard and listened. All of them, he said, were afraid the water they relied on for drinking, bathing and cleaning was contaminated.
Hollis' well, which is more than 1.5 miles from the coal ash pond, was found to have .03ppb hexavalant chromium; less than the limit set by DHHS in 2015.
"We don't really care where it comes from, we just want fresh water," Hollis said on behalf of his neighbors. "We're going to keep voicing our opinion until something gets done."
Duke Energy denies coal ash cause high levels of hexavalent chromium
A Duke spokeswoman denied the coal ash pond at the Cliffside Steam Station—which has been in operation since the 1940s—had contaminated any water wells of neighboring homes.
"I can say for certain the ash basins around the state are not affecting people's wells," spokeswoman Erin Culbert said in an interview with On Your Side Investigates.
"You're saying that coal ash contaminants have nothing to do with the coal ash a mile down the road?" On Your Side Investigates asked. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying," Culbert replied.
To support her position, Culbert pointed to a groundwater flow study prepared by Duke scientists that shows the ground water flowing beneath the coal ash pond at the Cliffside plant flow into the French Broad River and not towards any neighboring water wells.
DOCUMENT: Duke Energy groundwater flow map
"The groundwater direction that's flowing near the ash basin is not heading toward neighbors' wells nearby, it's actually heading toward the river and it's not impacting the river itself," Culbert explained. "We also know that the neighbors who live really close to the Cliffside facility do not have elevated levels of boron. That's a chemical more closely associated with potential coal ash impacts than hexavalent chromium."
Instead, Culbert said, the water wells we tested had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium because the chemical is naturally occurring.
Report finds Duke's groundwater study flawed
An analysis of the groundwater flow study conducted by Duke Energy found the company's scientists used flawed data and improper modeling to determine its groundwater, tainted with decades of coal ash residue, was not impacting nearby water wells.
The analysis was done by Dr. Douglas Cosler, a hydrogeologist hired by the Southern Environmental Law Center, who has taken Duke Energy to court in an effort to force the company to clean up its coal ash ponds.
Cosler's reported was submitted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality as part of comments by the SELC regarding the risk Duke's coal ash ponds posed to the environment.
"The CSA and CAP investigations assumed that all groundwater north of the ash basin system (overburden and bedrock aquifers) discharges into the Broad River. However, these studies did not collect hydrogeologic data or perform data analyses or groundwater flow modeling to support this assumption," Cosler wrote.
Cosler's report goes on to say that Duke scientists made errors in analyzing test data and, essentially, drew an underground wall around the coal ash pond that prevented models from suggesting water would flow from the ash pond to neighboring wells.
"Most of the groundwater at the Cliffside site was apparently assumed to discharge into the Broad River (other than groundwater discharges to small streams such as Suck Creek) according to a generalized conceptual model (Legrand, 2004) before actual site-specific hydrogeologic data were analyzed," Cosler wrote in his report. "Statements to this effect were made at numerous points in the CSA and CAP reports. However, HDR did not present any site-specific data analyses or groundwater flow modeling that would support this assumption in either report. In fact, as discussed below, the boundary conditions for the CAP Parts 1 and 2 flow models effectively forced site groundwater to discharge into the river at the downgradient model boundary."
New legislation leaves uncertain future
The passage of new legislation regulating coal ash last week means an uncertain future for some neighbors of Duke coal ash facilities.
People like LouAnn Watkins, whose well tested as .29ppb hexavalent chromium, and James Manning, whose well was found to have .12ppb hexavalent chromium, live outside of the half-mile boundary set by the new legislation.
The Department of Environmental Quality has yet to elaborate on what criteria it will use to determine whether Duke must run alternate water lines to homes with water wells outside of the half-mile radius.
Already, a group of angry neighbors near the Allen Steam Station in Belmont and the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury have staged events urging McCrory to veto the bill.
Neighbors of the Cliffside plant, led by Roger Hollis, say they'll continue to hold out hope that help will finally be on its way.
"Everybody would like to have fresh water," he said. "I think we're entitled to it.