Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds a health concern for neighbors

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 22, 2014

In their refrigerators and kitchen cabinets, residents along Leonard Road strive to keep a steady supply of what has become a staple beverage in their community over the past few months.
While bottled water has become relatively cheap on the shelves, relying solely on it and buying it for weeks and months on end tends to add up for families living close to the three coal ash ponds owned by Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station, which reportedly has an estimated ash storage of 1.55 billion gallons.
Duke Energy’s neighbors say it’s worth it, since the common thinking nowadays along Leonard Road is “Don’t drink the well water.”
Don’t even cook with it or allow your children to play around it.
With a strikingly coincidental string of cancer diagnoses and birth defects in families living along the road over the years, people living adjacent to the plant since have changed their stances from asking to demanding three things – being able to tap in to the city’s water system, the removal of the coal ash around their property and medical monitoring to see what the effects of the exposure to coal ash have been thus far.
When coal is burned to generate energy, the process generates a myriad of toxic byproducts, including hexavalent chromium.
Although recent analyses of the community’s wells conducted by Duke Energy and the state found acceptable levels of chromium in the well systems, a current analysis conducted by Waterkeeper Alliance officials says otherwise.
According to the report, data gathered from 2011-2014 showed 250 instances where the groundwater standards were exceeded for boron, chromium, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, pH and sulfate around Buck Steam Station.
The cases reportedly ranged from 1.1 to 25 times higher than the state’s standards.
At the home of Ron and JoAnn Thomas on 1160 Leonard Road, the Waterkeeper Alliance well report indicated the presence of chromium at 11 parts per billion to 28 parts per billion.
The state’s groundwater standard for total chromium is 10 parts per billion.
“Despite years of excedances at the compliance boundary and the Thomas property, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has failed to require Duke Energy ‘take immediate action to eliminate the source or sources of contamination’ or ‘implement an approved corrective action plan for the restoration of ground water quality’ as required by (state) law and an order by Judge (Paul) Ridgeway,” the report states.
Through medical research, hexavalent chromium has been linked to increased risk of bone, prostate, lymphomas, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, stomach, genital, renal and bladder cancer, the report states.
Kim Brewer, a former resident on Leonard Road and the mother of two children who were born with birth defects and raised there for years, said Duke Energy officials used “method 218.6” to test for toxic hexavalent chromium at the wells while Waterkeeper Alliance used “method 218.7.”
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends using the latter since it is the most recent form of testing, Brewer said.
“I called the independent lab that Duke used to test the wells, which was Element One out of Wilmington. I spoke with an analyst who said they offer method 218.7. They do,” Brewer said.
Duke Energy worked with Element One for the testing, Brewer said, and opted to go with the older method.
After calling the EPA again, Brewer said she was told the 218.7 testing detects hexavalent chromium on a lower level.
“I don’t know why Duke used an earlier version of testing when their independent lab offers what the EPA recommends, or why they tested houses that haven’t shown a problem,” Brewer said.
Standing in the front yard at 770 Leonard Road, Chris Payne said he has been living in the area his entire life and was not aware of the potential toxicity in the wells until about March.
“There are man-made chemicals that are showing up in these wells, and Duke is saying those are acceptable levels of chromium. No, it’s not acceptable,” Payne said. “You should never have any man-made chemicals in the water. The limit should be zero, so I don’t know how anybody could say that is acceptable. Period.”
The two daughters Payne fathered with Brewer, Laney and Ava, both came into the world with severe health issues.
Ava has Chiari malformation, a rare condition where a person’s brain tissue extends into the spinal canal.
Seeing as how Ava was born with the condition, Payne ruled out its cause as a result of head trauma or genetics.
“It’s not in either one of our lines,” Payne said.
Laney was born with spina bifida.
“You have two children, and back-to-back they have conditions as rare as these,” Payne said.
While the children had to stay on a heavy regimen of medication while living around Leonard Road, Brewer said her daughters’ conditions improved and their respiratory symptoms dissipated following their move to Lexington.
“I’m not trying to blame Duke that that is the reason why my kids are sick,” Brewer said.
Upon seeing the results of the Waterkeeper Alliance study, Brewer said she had to make a change for her daughters.
Brewer said Laney and Ava are not allowed to drink any water coming from the well, and will not eat any food cooked in the same water.
Payne said he wants the city’s water system extended to get fresh water to the area as well as the medical monitoring of people to take effect immediately.
“Until it is cleaned up, it is never going to repair itself. It could take thousands of years for the soil to get back to natural and to where it is not contaminated,” Payne said.
On top of getting coal ash removed, Payne said he wants the state to lower the its standard so Duke Energy “can’t get away with stuff like this.”
The biggest concern for the Thomas family is the seepage from one of the plant’s coal ash ponds located about 400 feet from their well.
Toward the rear of their property on Saturday, Ron Thomas pointed out a brightly colored orange sludge seeping out into a stream running directly down to the Yadkin River.
Thomas said the plant’s officials said the seepage was colored due to being extremely rich in iron.
The sample Waterkeeper Alliance officials took indicates the orange-colored seepage tested 9.7 times higher for chromium than the state’s average – 97 parts per billion versus the state’s allowable 10 parts per billion.
The same sample tested 1,086 times higher than the state’s level for iron and 562 times the state’s level for manganese, according to the report.
Ron’s wife, JoAnn, said she is sure the water from Buck Steam’s ash pond is seeping into her and her husband’s property.
“People have told us that it is the biggest seep they have ever seen. It is a pretty good size. Duke Power has had companies checking the area, and they were checking way down the creek so they were getting diluted stuff,” JoAnne Thomas said.
Duke Power needs to pay to run fresh water lines from the city to the area, she said, and the ash in the ponds needs to be hauled away.
“The ash in the water continues to push down in the ground and out toward the sides. That is why we have all the little seeps down there,” Thomas said. “Capping it is not going to do any good. There needs to be a liner all the way underneath the pond and up as high as it goes on the sides and the ends.”
The Thomases have lived in the pre-Civil War house for most of their lives.
The mother twice experienced kidney failure as well as a benign pituitary brain tumor.
Ron now is paying out-of-pocket for treatments on the heavy metals in his system.
The Thomases’ daughter, Melissa Shue, said she remembers when multiple people in the area started getting diagnosed with chronic illnesses regularly.
Over the years, people in four consecutive Leonard Road houses contracted brain tumors in addition to breast cancer and pancreatic cancer cases in other neighboring houses.
“It is unreal,” Shue said. “That is not to mention how many Duke Buck Steam employees who lived in this area who had leukemia.”
Shue said there is no barrier between the ash pond in her parents’ backyard and the property.
Legislators need to come down to Dukeville and see the seepage on the Thomases’ property for themselves, Shue said.
“What we’re being told is none of (these sicknesses) can be linked to coal ash. Our question is how much has it been studied,” Shue said. “Can it not be linked because enough studies have been conducted, or can these illnesses not be connected because there haven’t been enough studies done? We’re very aware it is not just Buck. It is all these other communities who have the same situations, and all our family is trying to do is get to the truth.”
Shue said Duke Energy has been a good neighbor over the years, and they need to be proactive and “do the right thing.”
Representing several families in homes around the Buck Steam plant, Mona Wallace of the Wallace & Graham law firm said Duke Energy and the N.C. General Assembly should include the local plant as one of the coal ash pond areas slated to be cleaned up in legislation coming to the Senate floor this week.
Wallace also echoed residents’ concerns desiring the city’s water system be extended to Leonard Road so the residents can forget about using their current wells and access fresh water.
The families living in the area around the plant are “the finest and most genuine,” Wallace said.
“I encourage (N.C.) Sen. Andrew Brock and (N.C.) Sen. Harry Warren and others to include Buck Steam in the pending bill for the obvious reasons the coal ash should be removed given the ponds’ proximity to houses,” Wallace said.
Brock could not be reached for comment by presstime.
Warren, R-Rowan, said he was reaching out to his fellow elected officials in Raleigh who represent Rowan County to converge on the Thomases’ property on June 30 to see exactly what is happening with the coal ash pond seepage.
Warren said the samples he has been shown on the toxicity levels in the area’s wells indicate levels are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s ranges.
“There are people in the General Assembly trying to work on this. The Senate came out with a comprehensive plan, and it still has some potential,” Warren said. “It would probably give us one of the most strict standards for coal ash in the country.”
While the issue of coal ash removal is being addressed, Warren said there is no easy solution.
“Right now, the most important thing is looking at these sites in close proximity to water and getting the ash out of there,” Warren said. “I would like to see Buck Station within the first fourteen to get cleaned up.”
The people living behind the three coal ash ponds along Leonard Road have a legitimate concern, Warren said.
Plants across the state have been burning coal for 80 years, Warren said, yielding a tremendous amount of ash.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees with them. We want to remove the coal ash and find a purpose or way to store it,” Warren said.
Brewer said she is planning to visit lawmakers Thursday in Raleigh to talk about extending the city’s water infrastructure to reach out to Leonard Road.
The community also needs medical monitoring, Brewer said, to know what the water has done to people’s health.
“We haven’t physically seen a leak and we haven’t had a big spill, but we can tell there is contamination in our wells,” Brewer said. “It’s a big thing in our community.”
The coal ash already has done damage to the community’s groundwater and will continue to do so, Brewer said.
Brewer said Buck Steam’s neighbors shouldn’t be paying the power bill for Duke Energy to clean up the ponds via rate hikes.
“This community shouldn’t have to keep buying bottled water, either. It’s got to the point where it costs more now than what a water bill would be,” Brewer said. “That’s not right.”
Brewer is organizing the neighborhood to join together and speak at an upcoming Rowan County commissioners meeting as well as to the lawmakers in Raleigh.