If measure passes in legislature, Dukeville could get municipal water

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 29, 2016

Josh Bergeron


SALISBURY — State legislators last week increased the possibility that people who live near coal ash ponds could see a permanent solution to water woes.

A measure numbered Senate Bill 71 would recreate a committee of people tasked with overseeing the closure of coal ash ponds. Perhaps more importantly, the bill would require that neighbors of coal ash ponds receive safe drinking water — most likely a connection to a municipal water system. In Rowan County’s case, the safe drinking water would come from an extension of a Salisbury-Rowan Utilities water line that ends near Interstate 85 on Long Ferry Road.

When it came time for a vote, Senate Bill 71 received support from both of Rowan County’s N.C. House members — Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican whose district includes the Dukeville community, and Rep. Harry Warren, R-77. Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican whose district includes Dukeville, says he also supports the measure.

“Really, the most exciting part about it was getting water to the people who need it and want it,” Ford said about Senate Bill 71. “Anytime you listen to anybody concerned about coal ash, 99.9 percent of the conversation is about water.”

Ford said the fastest way to get clean water to Dukeville residents would be by extending the water line near I-85.

Ford sent the Salisbury Post a copy of a resolution previously passed by the Town of East Spencer that authorizes Mayor Barbara Mallett and Town Administrator David Jaynes to spearhead negotiations for an extension. The resolution notes that water lines in question sit outside of the the town, but East Spencer is the closest municipality.

Although it’s not directly related to coal ash problems, a feasibility study completed last year looked at the costs of extending water lines into an area that includes Dukeville. The study’s intent was to examine extend water lines to an economic development site, but it also included the cost of extending lines into the Dukeville community. The study — paid for by Rowan County government — estimates that it would cost $9.84 million to extend water lines into the “North Study Area,” which includes Dukeville.

For now, Senate Bill 71 has stalled in the N.C. Senate, which chose not to concur with changes made to the measure by the N.C. House.

The specific, problematic provision says neighbors of coal ash ponds would qualify for permanent water supplies if water wells exceed federal or state drinking water standards. However, some of the levels used by state regulators to declare wells unsafe were not state or federal standards. Instead, they were health screening levels. Those health screening levels were later disregarded when state regulators decided to lift its declaration that water wells were unsafe.

If state legislators leave the bill as is, a limited number of people would actually qualify for municipal water. If health screening levels are included, essentially all of Dukeville could be hooked up to municipal water.

Senate Bill 71, as is, would require Duke Energy to submit a plan for providing safe water by December 2017. If water lines are cost prohibitive, the company may be required to provide filtration systems for water wells.

Ford said the bill, as is, doesn’t explicitly state how costs for water lines might be paid. He said Duke Energy would be responsible for at least a large portion of the costs.

This time, Brock said state lawmakers are trying to get it right.

“It has been very frustrating for people,” Brock said. “People have been getting mixed messages from DEQ and (the Department of Health and Human Services).”

He said state lawmakers, including himself, want to ensure that neighbors of coal ash ponds have peace of mind.

“They just don’t know who to believe and what to believe,” he said. “They don’t know which way to go because they’ve received so many mixed messages. Our goal is to make sure these people are taken care of.”

Brock and Ford said they’re not interested in the provision that would recreate the Coal Ash Commission — a regulatory body to oversee the closure of coal ash ponds. A lawsuit by Gov. Pat McCrory resulted in the commission being disbanded.

Ford said he doesn’t want another fight with the governor over the Coal Ash Commission, but it seems like McCrory “just wants to make most of the appointments.”

McCrory, in fact, has threatened to veto Senate Bill 71 even though it includes a provision that ensures coal ash pond neighbors would receive permanent sources of water.

“This bill is a blatant attempt to bypass state regulators and seek more favorable treatment from an unaccountable and unneeded bureaucracy that further delays the cleanup process,” McCrory said in a news release last week.

In fact, Senate Bill 71 would give Duke Energy more time to excavate their coal ash ponds. Lawmakers, however, said providing people with permanent water sources would alleviate most of the concern about coal ash contamination.

Brock said there’s a good chance Senate Bill 71 will pass the Senate with a veto-proof majority. It already passed the State House by a veto-proof margin. So, even if McCrory vetoes the measure, the legislature could ensure it becomes law by overriding McCrory.

McCrory’s news release notes that DEQ would reevaluate coal ash ponds after repairs are made and permanent water is provided, but there’s no provision in state law that would require Duke to provide a safe, permanent water source.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.