People who live near Duke Energy's North Carolina coal ash dumps on Thursday marked 1,000 days of living on bottled water, amid fears that their wells are contaminated. They're calling on lawmakers to adopt stronger groundwater standards to prevent contamination of private wells. And they want Duke to dig up and secure coal ash statewide - not just at a few sites as now required.
Duke says its coal ash sites are not contaminating people's wells. But for nearly three years, it has been providing bottled water to hundreds of homes around the state while it complies with a state mandate to install water filters or connect homes to public water supplies.
Representative John Autry of Charlotte supports the well owners and called the situation "life changing" for coal ash neighbors.
"What we want to do today is to remind everyone that for 1,000 days now, Duke Energy's neighbors have been living on bottled water. Now that's nearly three years," Autry said, as he and several other legislators joined plant neighbors at a press conference in Raleigh.
Autry said it's up to lawmakers and the state Department of Environmental Quality to solve the problem.
"I urge the leadership in the legislature and DEQ to demand that Duke Energy remove all of its coal ash from unlined pits and safely recycle it or dispose of it above ground on Duke's property. … And to support groundwater standards for emerging contaminants, such as hexavalent chromium, that are protective of the public's health," Autry said.
Thursday's event at the state legislature was organized by the Alliance of Carolinians Against Coal Ash, or ACT, and the environmental group Appalachian Voices. They planned a similar press conference Thursday afternoon outside Duke Energy's headquarters in downtown Charlotte.
Duke plans to excavate ash at some sites, but leave it in place at others, with new waterproof covers. Both basin closure methods are allowed by law.
WORRIES ABOUT CONTAMINATION
Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned. Some well owners worry that cancer-causing elements in coal ash are poisoning their drinking water.
State officials warned well owners about possible contamination in 2015, then reversed that advisory a year later, saying their water was safe. Duke Energy says studies have found that some elements of coal ash, such as hexavalent chromium, occur naturally. Meanwhile, the company says studies of ground water flows show its coal ash dumps are not contaminating wells. But concerns over water quality have remained.
A 2016 state law requires Duke to provide safe water supplies to about 1,000 residents who live near coal ash sites. Duke has completed some of the work and is in the midst of extending water mains and installing filtration systems elsewhere. The work must be completed by Oct. 15. Duke estimates it will cost about $31 million.
The company is asking state regulators for rate increases to help pay for many costs related to coal ash cleanups, including the bottled water and safe water supplies.
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company is still trying to contact some homeowners to arrange installations. Some have not responded, while others appear to be holding out on the advice of lawyers. As of this week, she said, Duke and its contractors have plans to extend about 15 miles of new water mains to 370 homes statewide. Another 160 homes will be connected to existing water mains. And they're putting filter systems in about 170 homes.
Sheehan said there are no strings attached to the water lines or filters.
That's not the case with cash payments the company has offered to owners of wells near coal ash sites. A year ago, Duke offered one-time payments of $5,000 plus stipends of $8,000 to $22,000 per household to help pay for future water bills once they're connected to a public water supply. Some are balking at the offer, which requires homeowners to give up the right to sue over possible contamination.
Duke estimates the price tag for the supplements at $22 million, if all 1,000 affected homeowners sign on. Shareholders would pay that – not customers.