Belmont-area families waiting for answers on coal ash

Amy Brown and her family have lived in the shadow of Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station for a decade. Brown says she didn't think  much of it until December 2014, when she was informed her  private well water supply needed to be tested because of its proximity to Allen's coal ash ponds, where approximately 16 million tons of coal ash is stored in one active and one inactive coal ash pond.

Brown's well  water showed elevated levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium, which is recognized as a human carcinogen. She and many of her neighbors received "do not drink" notifications from North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

"As you can imagine, as a mother automatically I start thinking about all the meals that I prepared for my children.The water that they've been exposed to, bathing, swiming in a pool, the ice, everything just starts going through your mind. It's just fear," Brown said.

The Browns have been living off of bottled water for ten months now, all of which is paid for by Duke Energy.

Every two weeks the company has it delivered to homes that received the notifications from DHHS. Duke Energy says 214 homes near the Allen Steam Station, and 388 across the state, receive deliveries of bottled water.

John Teague lives across the street from the Browns. After more than 30 years here, he worries he'll be stuck in this house for life because of the water.

"We thought about selling this house, maybe moving to the coast. You can't sell this house... couldn't sell it to anybody," he said.

The state says vanadium and hexavalent chromium are  naturally occurring constituents in North Carolina's groundwater. The much harder question to figure out is, at what level?

"We're still working on if these constituents are coming from Duke or not, we should have that information by late Spring or early Summer," said Tom Reeder, Assistant Secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, in a phone interview. "It's a very complex process dealing with groundwater plumes and groundwater treatment processes."

Under state law, DEQ had until the end of 2015 to classify  all coal ash ponds as high, intermediate or low risk. The final classifications ultimately determine when and how the coal ash ponds will be closed. DEQ deemed Allen Steam Station at low to intermediate risk.

"We did not have the information at that time to determine if the Duke coal ash ponds were impacting these surrounding wells and we still don't have that information," Reeder said. "So until we can make that clear scientific determination, we can't rank that facility as either low or intermediate."

Reeder says the linchpin in classifying the facilities is the risk to groundwater.

Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says they've found no evidence that Duke Energy’s ash basins near the Allen facility in Gaston County have impacted people who live nearby.
                   
According to Duke Energy’s comprehensive site assessment, the coal ash ponds at Allen pose "no imminent hazard to human health or the environment." The company also says groundwater beneath the ponds flows away from the nearest public or private water wells.
                   
Culbert says Duke Energy is now waiting on the state's final evaluation. In the meantime, they'll keep providing bottled water to residents.

"I'm really pleased that the company was able to step up right away to be able to provide these neighbors peace of mind but now we're in a different place, we do have a lot of the data collected, we still continue to see no indication that ash basins at Allen and Buck have influenced these neighbors wells," she said.

In conversation, both Culbert and Reeder are quick to point out the well water complies with federal drinking water standards.

Over email a DHHS spokesperson says the "do not drink” notifications sent out by the  department were  recommendations based on health risks, and that those recommendations will be updated as DEQ releases more data.

However, around the Allen plant, suspicion of what's coming out of the tap runs high.

"It's been over a year since we received the first initial letter from the state, and it's sad to say, but we're really in the same siutation we were in a year ago," Brown said. "We have no answers, we're continuing to wait."

A public hearing is slated for the Allen site on March 22nd. Public comment will be accepted into mid-April. The final risk rating for Allen and several   other sites should come out sometime this summer.

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