DENR’s well testing would be the latest in a series

Published 12:10 am Thursday, December 18, 2014

Another round of coal ash testing could be coming to Rowan County.

After tests by a non-profit environmental group and the largest electrical power holding company in the U.S., the state could test private wells in Rowan County for free. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced Wednesday that it would begin offering testing to residents with private water wells within 1,000 feet of coal ash impoundments.

DENR plans to mail letters to 289 people with a private water supply, such as a well, and 15 public drinking water systems. Any costs associated with well testing will be paid by Duke Energy, a news release stated. If the tests indicate there’s an exceedance of ground water quality that can be traced back to the coal ash impounds, Duke Energy is required to provide an alternative supply of water for drinking and other household uses, the news release stated.

The private testing is part of the Coal Ash Management Act — passed this year — but the announcement comes in the midst of a controversy about whether Buck Steam Station’s coal ash impoundments are leaking chemicals into the Yadkin River. Earlier this month, non-profit environmental organization Yadkin Riverkeeper claimed its testing revealed high levels of arsenic, lead and selenium seeping from the Buck Steam Station’s coal as reservoirs.

“There was no liner at the bottom of these coal ash pits,” said Will Scott, who’s the lead advocate for the Yadkin Riverkeeper. “It’s very clear these elements were going to migrate into groundwater. Ultimately, this is going to be water that people drink from.”

Following the claims from Yadkin Riverkeeper, Duke Energy and DENR conducted their own tests.

Duke Energy’s tests counter the riverkeeper’s claims. Erin Culbert, a Duke spokeswoman, declined to provide detailed test results to The Salisbury Post, saying the results first would need to be submitted to DENR. Though, Culbert said Duke’s tests only showed “exceedances” in two categories iron and manganese, which she said shouldn’t be concerning for the water quality of the Yadkin River.

“Naturally-occurring and non-harmful iron bacteria often causes the orange coloration that appeared in the pictures of the flow,” Culbert said in an email. “When collecting water quality samples from such low-flow areas, it is essential to collect representative samples that are free from sediment and other particles, to the extent possible, and to preserve them properly.”

Duke’s tests were conducted both upstream and downstream from Buck Steam Station, Culbert said.

She said Duke would want to see the exact testing results to validate that the waterkeeper used standard practices for collecting and analyzing samples.

“When you’re collecting samples, especially from these very low-flow locations, it’s very easy to pick up sediment or other particles in the water and those would then dissolve into the samples through the preservative process that you use on the way to the lab and that can skew the results pretty significantly,” Culbert said. “We’ve seen that occur with other riverkeeper samples and other waterkeeper alliance samples that they have sometimes not followed the most standard collection processes.”

Scott declined to provide the Riverkeeper’s test results to The Salisbury Post, citing ongoing litigation with Duke Energy.

DENR’s test results for the Buck Steam Station won’t be ready until January, according to multiple DENR employees. Though she couldn’t provide results, Susan Massengale, an agency spokeswoman, listed in an email the specific steps that DENR took in its tests.

DENR took five total samples, according to Massengale. The first three were taken downstream from Buck Steam Station. DENR’s first came from a high flow of orange-colored seepge. The second was a soil sample from the same spot.  The third same was of the Yadkin River adjacent to the orange seepage.

The fourth and fifth sample — both upstream — were of sediment and the Yadkin River.

“We will wait until we have test results to determine what it is, but it looked similar to evidence of an iron bacteria,” Massengale said in an email. “Iron bacteria live in streams, lakes and ponds worldwide and grows in areas where there is a lot of iron in the water. The iron may be naturally occurring or influenced by human activity.”

Iron was included in a list of more than a dozen other chemicals DENR will test for in its planned private well samples. DENR’s tests will also look for the chemicals cited in the Yadkin Riverkeeper’s announcement on Dec. 5, which include: arsenic; lead and selenium.

Regardless of any test results, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities Director Jim Behmer said it isn’t likely that any contamination from Buck Steam Station would affect Salisbury or Rowan’s public water system. Salisbury’s water supply comes from intakes located upstream of the Buck Steam Station.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246