In North Carolina, a coal ash spill brought attention to hazardous chemicals near power plants. Now, hundreds are living off bottled water.





When manufacturers burn coal, they produce powders and particles that contain arsenic, mercury and other chemicals that can cause cancer in humans. Power plants often discard the waste, called coal ash, into artificial ponds on site.

The ash is meant to settle at the bottom of the pond, away from workers and homeowners.

But on February 2, 2014, a stormwater pipe at a Duke Energy plant in Eden, N.C., broke, funneling some 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

It doesn't take a burst pipe for traces of the chemicals to spread.

Duke Energy maintains the Buck Steam Station in Yadkin, N.C., the site of one of its 14 coal ash ponds.

Duke Energy representatives say they're providing the bottles as a good neighbor initiative.

Nearly a thousand days have passed since the big spill, and the issue is far from water under the bridge.


by Sharon Nunn




by Audrey Wells

The Dan River in Eden, N.C. | Langston Taylor

The sun shines down on the Yadkin River as a motor boat inches along through the lush, tree-lined channel. The sunlight creates a reflection of the scene on the river that serves as the drinking supply for more than 734,000 people.

Suddenly, a shadow disturbs the picture-perfect view. The Buck Steam Station electrical power plant casts its dark silhouette over the water. The plant, built in 1926, was Duke Energy’s first large capacity, coal-generating plant in the Carolinas. Even though the plant hasn’t burned coal since 2013, the coal ash left behind continues to affect the river basin’s neighbors, a population of about 1.6 million people.

Elevated Arsenic Levels

The most recent testing, released in September by the Southern Environmental Law Center, shows arsenic levels to be at four times the state surface water standard at the point where the Buck Steam Station coal ash pond flows into the Yadkin river.

“This is further confirmation of what Duke Energy has known for years” SELC lawyer Frank Holleman said in a release. “Coal ash pollution is leaking out of its ash pits and into surrounding waters.”

The testing shows arsenic at 43.5 parts per billion at the discharge point. The state standard is 10 parts per billion.

“If you and I went out right now and went to an ash pond, and sampled it, it wouldn’t surprise me to see 40 micrograms per liter in the ash pond water,” said Dr. Josh Daniels, chair of the National Ash Management Board. “Generally speaking, you can’t find it once it hits a river the size of the Yadkin.”

UNC Charlotte’s Lee College of Engineering assembled the National Ash Management Advisory Board. The board provides independent input and advice to Duke Energy officials as well as the state government.

Other organizations view the elevated levels of arsenic as a violation of state law. Yadkin Riverkeeper, a watershed protection nonprofit focused on preventing pollution in the Yadkin Pee Dee River basin, said the elevated arsenic levels violate state law.

“It’s against the law,” head riverkeeper Will Scott said. “They are supposed to stop discharging any pollutant causing a violation of state water quality standards.”

Scott said the public has asked for the pond to be labeled at intermediate risk, which means Duke Energy would have to excavate the ash and move it away from the river.

“We had public meeting here back in April and over 180 people showed up,” he said. “Only one person spoke in favor of the low-risk designation, and that was a Duke Energy employee.”

Excavating vs. Covering Coal Ash

Yadkin Riverkeeper said Duke Energy should excavate coal ash and place it in lined storage containers. This is how other solid wastes, such as household garbage, are stored. Scott said this would prevent continued pollution from coal ash contaminants.

“Folks have been having to live with the consequences of this pollution for a long time now, and there’s not an immediate end in sight for them,” he said. “[Duke Energy] wants to be able to bury it in place, they want special treatment.”

However, Duke Energy said a “one size fits all” closure solution doesn’t provide the benefits that some opponents think it does. Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy representative, said Duke Energy’s first priority is to ensure that the environment and local communities remain protected. He said the company keeps this goal in mind for all closure plans.

According to Duke Energy, dealing with coal ash is a site-to-site decision. Brooks said excavation was the best decision for some of the affected sites, but this isn’t a uniform response.

“In other areas, the science tells us you can leave this safely in place as long as you provide these multiple layers of protective barriers and put extensive groundwater monitoring, and redirect the water that flows in from rain water,” he said. “That’s equally safe and protective without the additional cost impact and community impact of having to excavate it and move it somewhere else.”  

NAMAB said excavating coal ash sometimes poses a larger risk than capping it does. In a letter to Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, Daniels said that excavation of coal ash might not be a safe, effective or sustainable alternative.

“The additional risk imposed by excavating and transporting ash from one location to another can exceed the potential risk posed by leaving the ash in place,” he said in the letter.

Daniels claimed that there is statistical certainty of traffic injuries and fatalities when moving coal ash from one location to another after excavation, citing a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Other risks of excavating the ash, according to NAMAB, include ecological disturbances and lasting environmental impacts from resource use and emissions even after removal.

Residents want the coal ash excavated. Deborah Graham is a resident of Salisbury, N.C. who has become a community activist after living on bottled water for 17 months. She doesn’t want to see the ash covered up.

“It wasn’t a problem 60 years ago. Wasn’t a problem 30 years ago. It really wasn’t a problem 10 years ago either, but it’s a problem now. We want it cleaned up,” Graham said. “Not just dried up and covered up. No, no, no.”

She compared this situation to an amusement park ride that her community can’t get off.

“A lot of people got on the roller coaster,” she said. “There’s a handful of us that can’t get off the roller coaster.”

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Yard signs at a home on Dukeville Road, which leads to the Buck Steam Station near Salisbury, N.C. | Langston Taylor

Where does the fault lie?

Various organizations, nonprofit groups and individuals have their ideas about who should handle coal ash and groundwater cleanup.

Megan Davies:

Representatives from the departments of Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality published an editorial in August disputing the media’s characterizations of the state’s efforts to protect drinking water.

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However, Megan Davies, the former state epidemiologist, said she gave Dr. Williams a summary document providing the basis in law and outlining usual practices for the approach the department was taking.

Davies said that the state government has misled the people of North Carolina, and as a result, she resigned from her position as epidemiologist.

“I can only conclude that the department’s leadership is fully aware that this [editorial] misinforms the public,” she said in the letter. “I cannot work for a department and an administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

Yadkin Riverkeeper:

Yadkin Riverkeeper said the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department Environmental Quality, and Duke Energy don’t have residents’ best interests at heart.

“The general sense is the state has been intimidated or cowed by Duke, and they’ve been unwilling to stand up to them.” Scott said. “You see Duke take a position and the state pretty quickly adopts that language and really takes Duke’s side rather than the residents’ side. I think that’s how [residents] have felt for a while now.”

National Ash Management Advisory Board:

NAMAB’s Daniels said the substances that cause groundwater contamination can occur naturally, and that creates potential for confusion. As a result, the original process and letters that resulted in Davies’ resignation were “awkward,” he said.

“As near as I can tell, a lot of homeowners got a letter that had nothing to do with coal ash, and had everything to do with natural background conditions… This unnecessarily got a lot of people upset,” he said.

Daniels said, If coal ash is in an unlined pond, it’s going to affect groundwater, and it can exceed groundwater standards, he said. But, he said, the concentrations are relatively diluted, which is why the EPA manages coal ash as a solid waste rather than a hazardous waste.

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“From what we can see today, we’re not seeing a connection between our operations at the site and the results in their well water,” Brooks said. “You would expect to see certain other indicators in those well water results that would make that correlation.”

In many cases, well owners with contaminated water are uphill from the plant site, and groundwater is not flowing in that direction, Brooks said. He added that Duke Energy would address an issue if there were to see a different result based on its modeling.

Where are we now?

As the debate about responsibility continues, NAMAB’s Daniels recommends that many ponds across the state be labeled at a “low-risk” classification, meaning that the coal ash pond can be left untouched.

“If you have a stability problem, the solution is not necessarily excavation,” Daniels said.

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“We understood that they had received ‘do not drink’ letters and there was ongoing testing being done by the state,” he said. “We wanted to provide the drinking water while this testing was being done.”

Other groups, like the Southern Environmental Law Center and Yadkin Riverkeeper, don’t agree with the low-risk classification, and have taken Duke Energy to court for violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

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“They refuse to clean up this site and protect the river from this ongoing arsenic contamination,” Scott said.

And the residents are tired. Graham said she wants her life back, but she doesn’t foresee a quick resolution.

“You can tell I’m tired. It’s mentally draining. It’s been 17 months and there is no end in sight,” she said. “They’ve not even begun to get our water together.”