State regulators: some coal ash neighbors have unsafe water again

Published 12:05 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — Depending on which letter you’re reading, water near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds may be safe to drink.

In 2015, state regulators told a large number of property owners near coal ash ponds that their well water was not safe to drink. Roughly a year later, state officials reversed that recommendation, saying the water was safe to drink. For a limited number of property owners, water is, again, unsafe to drink, according to state regulators.

The Department of Health and Human Services this week told the Salisbury Post it sent letters in June to four well owners reverting to an original “do not drink” recommendation. Rowan county resident Marcos Albarran is among the residents who are now being told by state government that his private water well is unsafe to drink. Albarran and his family moved to their house on Leonard Road in 2010, drank water for years and now live on bottled water — a familiar characteristic among Dukeville residents.

“To be honest, living through this whole situation has been a little bit confusing,” he said. “In like May of 2015, we got the first letter which told us our water wasn’t safe to drink. We got a letter telling us our water was safe earlier this year … It’s been maybe two weeks since we received another letter saying our water was not safe to drink.”

Albarran’s latest letter is signed by State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams and Division of Public Health Director Danny Staley. It notes that Albarran received a letter on March 11 declaring his water safe to drink. Because of a recently determined health screening level, Albarran’s water is now unsafe to drink, according to the letter.

“As you know, this is a complex and dynamic issue that continues to evolve,” the latest letter states. “We are committed to continuing to share information and maintain transparency with well owners, and are available to discuss usage recommendations and risk mitigation.”

Originally, state health officials used a level of 0.07 parts per billion as the health screening level for hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing heavy metal. That health screening level turned up dozens of unsafe water wells in Dukeville. Later, the state sharply raised the screening level to 10 parts per billion. However, state regulators in March told coal ash neighbors with hexavalent chromium levels higher than 10 parts per billion that their well water was OK to drink.

“I didn’t believe it and I don’t believe it now,” said Rowan resident Phillis Loflin-Kluttz, who lives next to Albarran and received the most recent letter. “We continue not to use the water.”

Attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, who represents a number of coal ash neighbors, says she was specifically told by Williams that lifting the “do not drink” recommendations wasn’t a mistake.

Duke Energy has repeatedly claimed it isn’t at fault for the unsafe levels of cancer-causing contaminants. The company says the contaminants occur naturally in soil.

Like other Dukeville residents, Loflin-Kluttz is doesn’t believe Duke’s claims. She has lived on the same property for a number of years. The property has been in her family for a more than 90 years, and she can recall a number of health problems, including deaths, that seem to be connected to unsafe water.

“Am I angry? Yes I’m angry,” she said. “Anybody would be angry.”

When Albarran moved to Dukeville in 2010, he used his well water like most Dukeville residents. He started seeing rashes on his arms and legs. He and other family members had other health issues. His kids, for example, had stomach problems.

Albarran didn’t know what brought about the health problems, but the state’s decision to declare his water unsafe made it clear. Even with the new level of 10 parts per billion, Albarran’s water contains double the amount of hexavalent chromium as screening levels allow.

Municipal water has been promised to Dukeville residents such as Albarran and Kluttz by county officials and state legislators. That relief, however, is more than a year away.

Albarran said he planned to buy the Dukeville house he currently owns, fix it up and move to a larger house.

“I just feel like I’m stuck,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to sell my house … People are going to think about it more than twice before buying a house next to Duke Energy.”

Until relief comes, Loflin-Kluttz said all she can do is try to use jokes to ease concerns about the unsafe well water. She knows exactly how many bottles of water it takes to make a pot of coffee in the morning. As a child, she remembers playing outside with feet that were covered in black ash because of the nearby power plant. Although state regulators say it’s safe to use water for some purposes, Loflin-Kluttz said she worries about taking a shower.

“I try not to make a joke about it, but to maintain I have to make light of it,” said Loflin-Kluttz, who works for Rowan County and organizes the county’s senior games. “At least I had bottled water to carry with me to all the (senior games) events this year.”

Loflin-Kluttz said she doesn’t talk much about the ongoing water contamination problems in Dukeville. People often lay blame on coal ash neighbors for increasing power bills, she said.

“They don’t have an understand of what we’re going through,” she said. “They say ‘you’re the reason my power bill is going up,’ but it’s not us. That’s the first thing they throw out and it bothers me.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.