Duke study: Residential wells not contaminated by coal ash

Published 12:15 am Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Duke Energy on Monday released a self-funded study stating Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds aren’t the reason for nearby water wells being declared unsafe.

The study states: “No imminent hazard to human health or the environment has been identified as a result of groundwater migration.” Instead of flowing toward nearby houses, groundwater from coal ash ponds flows toward the Yadkin River, Duke officials say.

“We continue to find no evidence that ash basins are influencing neighboring wells,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert.

As part of the study, Duke also installed water wells to test naturally present compounds. Duke was required to conduct the study — a groundwater assesment — as part of the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. Duke representatives say the study doesn’t end discussion about Buck Steam Station’s impact on the environment, but is an important next step in deciding the facility’s future.

Meanwhile, Dukeville resident Reg Gobble said the study is more of the same type of talk that’s consistently come from the power company.

“They are going to make the study out to what they want it to be, and the state is going to go along with them,” Gobble said. “It’s the same story they’ve been telling all along.”

Gobble’s community — Dukeville — largely relies on bottled water for drinking and cooking. The latest statistics show 83 of 86 water wells exceeding a state or federal water standard for contaminants. A total of 78 wells have received “Do Not Drink” recommendations for the state.

Duke has delivered bottled water to the houses at pre-determined intervals as a result of the unsafe wells. Culbert said the deliveries would continue as the company continues studying groundwater at the Buck Steam Station site.

Further studies would include a groundwater model that will help determine whether coal ash is removed completely from ponds, capped in place, or dealt with through another method.

The groundwater model will use data from Monday’s study, which was not released in full. On its website, Duke posted an executive summary of the study and a map showing the flow of water.

Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott criticized Duke’s summary and an included map, calling it a press release and not a scientific study.

“They’re a press release and should be treated as such until a third party can evaluate the actual monitoring wells data,” Scott said. “They’re an interpretation, not the actual information.”

In Dukeville, most groundwater flows north toward the Yadkin River, according to Duke’s study. Culbert said Duke’s data shows the Yadkin “has not seen a significant impact because of coal ash.”

However, the map included with the executive summary shows a concentrated area of elevated boron — a metal present in coal ash — directly adjacent to an inlet leading to the Yadkin.

Duke’s executive summary suggests elements such as chromium and vanadium — present in most tests that exceed groundwater standards — are naturally occurring. Background test results are similar to those found in private wells near Buck Steam Station, said Duke Energy Engineer Sean Deneale.

In some cases, the background test results would exceed the same standards applied to water wells near Buck Steam Station, according to the portion of the study posted on Monday. The background tests aim to determine whether chemical compounds are naturally occurring or a result of coal ash seepage.

Gobble, when asked about the release of Monday’s study, recalled days when it was common to find ash inside of a house after opening a window.

“I remember a time that one of my neighbors had his baby laying in the crib,” Gobble said. “When he went to pick him up, there was an outline in fly ash of the baby in the crib.”

Deneale wouldn’t rule out the possibility that wells could have been contaminated by another source, but said it was unlikely that falling fly ash would result in the same type of chemicals being found in Dukeville water wells.

Background tests conducted by Duke showed lower levels of chemical compounds such as hexavalent chromium and vanadium in wells near the surface, Deneale said. Higher levels were found in background tests for deep wells. Finding the compounds in deep wells, he said, is an indicator they are naturally present.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.