NC Suspects Duke Energy Coal Ash In Water Well Poisoning

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The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has just warned people living in Dukeville, North Carolina, and a local church, not to drink or cook with their well water. Toxic heavy metals have contaminated it, as reported by the Associated Press. Each well location is within a quarter mile of a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric company. Duke stores more than 150 million tons of coal ash in 32 dumps at 14 power plants in North Carolina alone.

A Duke Energy coal ash lagoon in NC, closed in 2012 (
A Duke Energy coal ash lagoon in NC, closed in 2012 (

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Last year, in a huge accident, the storage pond at Dukeville spilled 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. In response to the emergency, DNER tested private drinking water wells near this and other Duke-owned coal ash dumps. The tests revealed that heavy metals had contaminated 87 private drinking water wells near eight Duke plants across the state. Although vanadium is the contaminant of concern here, unusual levels of other heavy metals have also been found, including mercury, manganese, arsenic, antimony, and other contaminants from coal ash.

However, Duke denies that any dangerous pollutants have come from its leaky coal ash ponds. Company spokesperson Erin Culbert told ThinkProgress that boron and sulfates—“key indicators of groundwater potentially impacted by coal ash, because they migrate more quickly than other trace elements”—were not found at any of the sites. “Based on the state’s test results we’ve reviewed thus far, we have no indication that Duke Energy plant operations have influenced neighbors’ well water,” she said.

The nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance said boron and sulfates might not have been discovered if the coal Duke burned at the plant had been low in those elements. Said Pete Harrison, a staff attorney at the nonprofit:

“They’re ignoring what is there in the water and just pointing out what isn’t. I think it’s kind of a non-sequitur argument they’re trying to make.”

The AP reports that some of the notifications sent by DNER to Dukeville residents said that their water had high levels of vanadium, a naturally occurring element that has mixed medical effects. It may be useful in treating diabetics, although it is also a probable carcinogen. Vanadium in high levels is often found in coal ash.

Ironically, the element that can poison as well as medicate humans also enables very low-cost, high-capacity storage of electric energy. Vanadium flow batteries are a natural for storing solar and wind power and have recently fallen in cost.

Many of the DENR letters recommended resampling the well water in one month because the labs could not reliably measure vanadium toxicity levels below 25 ppb. Although there isn’t any federal drinking water standard for vanadium, the state has one and just updated it to 0.3 ppb from 18 parts per billion this year. At least six of the wells contained vanadium at a level higher than than 0.3.

One measured 25 ppb—75 times the maximum. That well serves James and Levene Mahaley, who have lived near the coal ash pond since 1954. AP reports that Duke Energy officials came to the Mahaley home in November, offered them shipments of bottled water, and warned them not to tell anyone about it. Yadkin Riverkeeper’s Will Scott, the lead advocate for the Dukeville watershed, said Duke also gave the Mahaleys information about the negative health impacts of vanadium, which mostly concern respiratory problems. He added:

“Duke [knew] that these people had high levels of vanadium. But they’ve still been sending out letters to the community saying everything’s fine.”

Duke Energy said that the Mahaley home had the only well in Dukeville that exceeded the older standard and that it was “not aware of any expectation that the Mahaleys keep that information private.” Duke has reportedly promised to use its own revenues to pay for any additional sampling that needs to be done.

The Waterkeeper Alliance is not satisfied with Duke’s overall response. Harrison has issued this statement:

“Our task now is to continue to investigate the connection through the groundwater between these ash ponds and these people’s wells. We know these ponds are leaking, but its much more difficult to prove where these contaminants are coming from because it’s all deep in the ground.”

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