Two sources, two standards: Confusion still remains around contaminated wells in Dukeville

Published 12:11 am Sunday, August 16, 2015

DUKEVILLE — Most residents of the rural community near Buck Steam Station refuse to drink out of household faucets, but, in some cases, their water would be allowed in municipal water systems across North Carolina.

For months, the residents have turned to bottled water as an alternative to well water declared unsafe by the state. The “unsafe” well water, however, often contains a lower level of the cited chemicals than some city systems.

Duke Energy has repeatedly stressed the private well water falls within federal drinking water standards and mentioned the potential for naturally occurring chemicals to affect results. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources stressed a similar point in a five-page question-and-answer document recently posted to its website.

A groundwater assessment due Aug. 21 is expected by Duke, state officials and environmental activists to answer many remaining questions and determine whether chemicals found in the wells are a result of coal ash contamination. Until then, Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott says Dukeville residents are left in a state of uncertainty.

“Residents are under an enormous amount of stress because of the level of uncertainty surrounding their drinking water,” Scott said. “Not only are they concerned about their health but many feel trapped by the fact that the (health risk evaluation) letters they received will now make it more difficult to sell their property even should they wish to move.”

Don’t drink your water

Starting in April, Dukeville residents began receiving letters advising against drinking their well water.

Each letter contained only a few bits of information specific to the individual well, including which elements exceeded state standards. Letters specifically recommended against drinking and cooking with the water. It was OK for washing, cleaning, bathing and showering, the letters stated.

The letters mentioned the state standards were more stringent than federal drinking water standards used for municipal water systesm. In smaller print, letters emphasized testing levels for one contaminant represented a one-in-a-million cancer risk.

As the initial results were delivered to Dukeville mailboxes, an overwhelming majority showed an exceedance beyond state standards.

The most recent state statistics show 97 percent of wells in Dukeville — 72 of 74 — are unsafe for drinking or cooking. Hexavalent chromium and vanadium, which can both occur naturally and in coal ash, are common exceedances in the Dukeville area. In some cases the results were several times higher than the state’s standards.

However, standards for water are different depending on the the location of tests.

Interpreting standards

Contaminant levels for wells near Buck Steam Station vary widely. At least one well near Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds is 300 times greater than the state standard. Other results fall a few parts per billion below the state standard.

For wells in Dukeville and around other coal ash ponds, the state standard used by the Department of Health and Human Services to declare wells unsafe is 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium and 0.3 parts per billion for vanadium. The standards were so minuscule that only certain labs were able to adequately test for violations of the state’s levels.

Under the federal rules for public systems, there is no standard for just hexavalent chromium. Instead, the state turns to total chromium, which has a standard at 10 parts per billion — noticeably higher than the level being used by Health and Human Services to advise local residents not to drink water. Vanadium doesn’t have a federal standard.

If the same standards used for water wells in Dukeville were applied to the Salisbury-Rowan Utilities system, municipal water wouldn’t pass, according to SRU’s 2014 water quality report.

Salisbury-Rowan Utilities isn’t required to test for hexavalent chromium and vanadium, but in 2013 SRU participated in voluntary testing, according to Director Jim Behmer. The voluntary testing results show, in some cases, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities would exceed the standards applied to Dukeville wells. The lowest test results fit within the state standards for Dukeville wells. The highest single result is nearly two times the state standard.

Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, however, met all state and federal requirements for muncipal systems, according to the water quality report.

In Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem municipal water lines, the highest test results also surpass state standards used for water wells near coal ash ponds.

“That’s the irony of this whole situation,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert when asked about the differences in standards. “Because the state has identified extremely restrictive health standards, it has now left a lot of people in a confusing place.”

When asked about the testing standards, Scott said, “I think they were just establishing what they considered was a protective standard.”

Testing standards for Dukeville water wells and other areas near coal ash ponds across the state were intended to represent a one-in-a-million cancer risk, according to the state’s question and answer document.

In the document, the testing levels are compared to various forms of death. For example, the odds of dying from a cataclysmic storm are one in 83,922, accidental drowning in a bathtub are one in 818,015 and accidental firearm discharge are one in 1.18 million, according to the state’s document.

“The (Department of Health and Human Services) recognizes that there is inherent risk associated with drinking water that contains any level of contaminant,” the document states.

The document also sought to clear up confusion, including the possibility that chemicals are naturally occurring.

“Naturally occurring vanadium is found in most geologic settings in North Carolina, especially in the rocks of the Piedmont,” the state document stated. “As a result, elevated dissolved concentrations of vanadium in groundwater are prevalent in parts of the Charlotte Belt, Milton Belt, Murphy Belt, Raleigh Belt and the Triassic Basin.”

The belts and basins described by DENR are geology terms used for various sections of North Carolina. Most of Rowan falls within the Charlotte Belt.

Is it from coal ash or nature?

Duke already has a few theories about how the study will turn out.

“Historic data has been showing that water is flowing toward the river and away from neighbors,” Culbert said. “But, our focus remains on helping plant neighbors get clear and accurate information.”

Culbert says the company has monitored groundwater at its coal ash facilities since 2006. Initial monitoring was voluntary, but the company reported data to state regulators.

It’s unlikely, Riverkeeper Scott counters, for Duke Energy to release a study showing the company is responsible for any contamination.

“What we don’t know is whether DENR will question Duke’s work on the groundwater assessment plans,” Scott said. “I highly doubt Duke would release an engineering study that showed it was contaminating nearby wells. The task for DENR now is to determine whether Duke accurately assessed groundwater flows around these wells.”

As an example of what to expect in Buck Steam Station’s groundwater assessment, Scott pointed out recently completed studies at Duke’s H.F. Lee, Sutton and Weatherspoon plants. Two of the three studies say groundwater is flowing away from nearby private wells.

Duke Energy has previously and repeatedly said the contamination could be naturally occurring. Scott says it’s reckless and irresponsible to attribute contamination to naturally occurring elements when Duke’s engineers don’t yet have enough data to make that determination.

As Duke prepares to release its groundwater study, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is beginning to collect data and assess the possibility that background levels contribute to test results, according to DENR spokesman Mike Rusher.

State scientists are testing 24 water wells around or near three facilities — including Buck Steam Station — Rusher said. Testing of background levels will be conducted in the same manner as wells closer to coal ash ponds, he said.

During a June 30 town hall meeting, state hydrogeologist Bruce Parris said five of seven wells tested higher than state standards. Rusher was unable to confirm or deny the statement. He said test results were mailed to the well owners last week and the state could release background level results after delivery was confirmed.

Did legislators do the right thing?

Testing of wells near coal ash ponds stems from the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, according to state officials. It has been nearly a year since the act was passed by state legislators. The act was prompted, in part, by a massive spill at Duke’s facility on the Dan River.

Quite a lot has changed since the act first passed. Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanor counts involving violations of the Clean Water Act, was ordered to pay $102 million in restitution and fines and committed to excavate coal ash from half of its 14 coal ash ponds. A total of 93 percent of water wells across the state have failed to meet the state’s standards for testing near coal ash ponds.

State Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, voted for the Coal Ash Management Act, and cited several reasons why he voted “yes,” including: holding Duke accountable for mitigation of environmental concerns, shining a light on coal ash concerns and the fact that it was the first measure to significantly address coal ash contamination.

“I believe it’s all been for the good,” Warren said.

Scott said the testing has forced state regulators to test wells around coal ash ponds “that we know are seeping contaminants into nearby groundwater.”

One negative Scott cited is the court ruling that declared the Coal Ash Commission — a regulatory body to oversee coal ash — unconstitutional.

Warren said he would like to see a greater sense of urgency in removing coal ash from ponds across the state. The law requires Duke to address potential pollution from its coal ash facilities by 2029.

What now?

With wells declared unsafe for consumption, Duke Energy has provided bottled water to communities across the state. Water deliveries occur on a pre-determined, recurring basis.

Private companies have also stepped up to provide bottled water in the wake of test results. Duke’s groundwater assessment will play a part in determining whether the company continues to provide bottled water to families, builds a municipal water line to Dukeville or stops deliveries altogether, according to Culbert.

If data from the groundwater assessment and other sources proves the company is not at fault for the unsafe water wells, Culbert said the company would inform bottled water recipients several weeks before it intends to stop deliveries.

If Duke isn’t responsible, Culbert said the weeks of water deliveries will show the company is committed to being a good neighbor to Dukeville residents.

She said “it’s always been the case” that the company was willing to build a municipal water line if assessments show the company is responsible for contamination.

The nearest municipal water line is operated by Salisbury-Rowan Utilities and ends near I-85. An extension would include close to three miles of pipe, according to a draft of a county water system feasibility study. If built, however, the water line in Dukeville would be subject to standards that are less stringent than the ones now declaring water in Dukeville unsafe for consumption.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the state’s standard for vanadium.