Coal ash neighbors included in county’s latest water system plans

Published 12:05 am Thursday, June 30, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — Regardless of what happens in state politics, water lines could be extended to Rowan residents who live near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Chairman Greg Edds said he expects commissioners to unanimously approve a plan during their meeting next week that would extend water lines to dozens of houses in the Dukeville area. State legislators have discussed whether to require Duke Energy to pay for water lines to be extended to coal ash neighbors, but, even if state legislators don’t compel Duke to foot the bill, Edds and Commissioner Craig Pierce said Rowan County government will be able to extend the water lines.

“I think the No. 1 job of local government is to provide for the safety of their citizens,” Edds said. “So, again, we’re not part of the overall scientific debate and we don’t know who is right in this, but to wait for the potential of years and years of debate over this is likely not acceptable to the residents.”

He said commissioners need to assume that Rowan County will shoulder the entire financial burden of extending water lines to the Dukeville community.

Regardless of whose money pays for the extension, Edds estimated it would take more than a year for construction of the water lines to wrap up.

Originally, county commissioners had only planned to run water and sewer lines to an economic development site on Long Ferry Road, which is near Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station. Intermittently, commissioners have discussed the possibility that water lines could be extended to coal ash neighbors. Next week’s meeting — Tuesday at 3 p.m. — is the first time commissioners have publicly discussed a plan to extend water lines to coal ash ponds neighbors.

Pierce said a recent petition from residents living near Buck Steam Station to county officials was the reason for developing a firm plan.

“We could not run those water lines unless we had a commitment from people to tie on,” he said.

It appears that 70 people plan to sign up for water service once the water lines are extended, according to a petition delivered to county officials.

“We, the citizens, residents, and homeowners surrounding Buck Steam Plant do hereby request that the County of Rowan extend water lines to the citizens, residents and homeowners living in the vicinity of coal ash contamination,” the petitions states. “By this petition, we declare our initial intention to tap into the Rowan County water lines in the event that such water lines are extended to our area.”

Dozens of Dukeville residents are living on bottled water amid questions about whether their water is safe to drink. Well water in the area exceeds health screening levels, but Duke Energy contends that its nearby coal ash ponds are not the culprit.

By late Wednesday afternoon, both houses of the state legislature had not passed a newly introduced measure requiring Duke Energy to provide municipal water to coal ash neighbors. Both houses of the legislature previously passed a similar bill, but Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the measure because of a provision that would’ve recreated a commission to oversee the closure of coal ash ponds. The new measure — part of House Bill 630 — is a compromise between McCrory and state legislators.

When asked about the Dukeville extension, Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert said the company is aware of Rowan County’s plans. She said Duke employees have met with county leaders to discuss extending water to residents within a half mile of Buck Steam Station.

Culbert said Duke is still researching logistics of how a water line might be extended. The pending measure in the state legislature could also affect Duke’s decision, she said.

Pierce mentioned loans as a probable funding source for the extension if the state legislature’s measure isn’t approved. Depending on the terms of the loan, he said the county should be able to repay any debt with customers’ payments.

Estimates provided by McGill Associates — hired by as Rowan County as its water and sewer system engineering firm — show water line extensions to the Dukeville community would cost approximately $4.8 million. The county would also shell out about $480,000 for McGill Associates for design, bidding and construction oversight costs for the Dukeville extension.

When county commissioners meet on Tuesday, they’ll specifically vote on design, bidding and construction oversight costs. County Manager Aaron Church has asked commissioners to allocate $180,000 to pay McGill Associates. The county has already allocated $300,000 in its fiscal year 2016-2017 budget for engineering services.

“We do believe that there will be partnership opportunities to assist with this expense, however, we are required to do a budget amendment so that documents may be pre-audited in compliance with the North Carolina Local Government Budget and Fiscal Control Act,” Church says in his recommendation to commissioners.

Edds says Rowan County is in a better position than most communities dealing with coal ash contamination. About two years ago, Pierce proposed that Rowan County extend water lines into rural areas for economic development. Since then, Rowan hired an engineering firm and began drafting plans to build a county-owned water and sewer system.

“The fact is because we were already fully engaged in the engineering and design process of over a mile of water and sewer on Long Ferry Road, we were much further in the process than every other community that is dealing with this problem,” Edds said.

Rowan County commissioners also have plans to extend water and sewer lines to economic development sites in southern Rowan County. That part of the water and sewer project isn’t as far along as the section in Dukeville.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.