Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

Dukeville, NC: Don’t drink the water, locals and activists warn

Locals say a nearby coal ash pond has polluted their drinking water, and a new cleanup schedule has left them behind

This is the second in a two-part series examining North Carolina’s efforts to clean up coal ash ponds across the state. You can read the first part, looking at the impact of the legislation passed last month, here.

SALISBURY, North Carolina — In Sherry Gobble’s house, the water runs toxic.

Gobble, who lives alongside Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station in a Rowan County community called Dukeville, discovered six months ago that water in her family’s well contains the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6. Since then, they have armed themselves with bottled water and a growing pile of empty jugs they fill up across town where they know the water isn’t tainted.

She believes the potentially cancer-causing contaminant is seeping in from the leaking coal ash pond next door. It’s a charge Duke Energy vigorously denies.

It would explain the ailments in Dukeville, which borders the power plant, she says. “We have cancer, birth defects all up and down our road in our community,” she said.

Gobble’s fears highlight what state environmentalists say is a primary flaw of North Carolina’s new law managing coal ash. The law, which went into effect last month after a massive ash spill along the Dan River earlier this year, is groundbreaking in that it is the first state-level attempt to manage the ash impoundments. It prioritizes four of the state’s 14 coal ash sites for immediate cleanup. But cleanup of the remaining sites, such as Buck Steam Station, could take as long as 15 years.

“I don’t understand how you can you say there are four sites that are top priority when there are 14 in the state,” Gobble said.

A test of her well water in March by New York–based NGO Waterkeeper Alliance revealed chromium-6 at 4.5 ppb, or parts per billion. While North Carolina has a chromium maximum of 10 ppb for groundwater, that does not specify chromium-6. It’s a problem that environmentalists say underscores the need for new, stricter mandates.

Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station, seen from across the Yadkin River in Salisbury, Oct. 7.
Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

The Environmental Protection Agency’s national standard for all chromium, by contrast, lags North Carolina’s dramatically, at 100 ppb. Earlier this year, California established a new chromium-6 standard of under 10 ppb in drinking water but for several years has also had a public health goal of 0.02 ppb.

But environmentalists contend that no level of chromium-6 is safe for drinking. “No one is contesting that hexavalent chromium is carcinogenic,” said Barb Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility’s director of environment and health. “There’s a definitive conclusion that it can cause a variety of cancers when taken orally.”

“I’m concerned for my family, my children especially,” Gobble said. “I will not allow my children to take a bath in the [well] water. I feel like we need emergency water now,” she said. “We don’t want to hurt Duke, we just want some answers.” 

Residents say cancer has become all too common among people living along Leonard Road in Dukeville.

JoAnn Thomas, who has lived on the road for 50 years, compiled a list of neighbors with brain tumors and other cancers a few months ago. It grew to 70 names. “That’s nothing scientific. Those are just people we remembered that had brain tumors,” she said.

JoAnn Thomas in front of her Civil War–era home on Leonard Road in Dukeville. Her husband, Ron, grew up in the house. She has lived there with him for 50 years. Both have had consistent health problems, including tumors, cancer and kidney failure.
Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) studied the cancer cluster occurrence in Rowan County more than 20 years ago, validating the anecdotal evidence by finding “an unusual pattern of brain cancer incidence” in the county. The inconsistent spikes noted at the time, however, led the DENR to conclude the pattern wasn’t related to an environmental risk.

In a cancer incident report released Oct. 3, the state’s health agency said the vast majority of the 2,301 cancer cases reported in the area from 1990 to 2013 were for those 50-years-old or older and were spread out over time. “It is possible that there is an environmental risk for cancer in the area; however, we do not see a higher occurrence of cancers in the populations usually associated with environmental factors at this time or any evidence of a clustering of cancer cases in any of these areas,” the report said.

Thomas, however, is not convinced. Many of the names on her list were from her family. Her husband has had prostate cancer and skin cancers and is currently receiving chelation therapy to remove heavy metals from his blood. She had a benign brain tumor removed and had kidney failure twice.

Like Gobble, she believes there is a connection between the coal ash pond 400 feet from her property and her well water, which has tested positive for low levels of chromium-6. The unlined coal ash basin has been there for more than 50 years, she said.

“It’s only been about nine months that we realized we have chemicals in the water. However, we’ve been drinking it for some time,” she said. “I can’t prove anything, but with all these different chemicals in the wells, it makes me feel like perhaps they have caused some of our health problems.”

“We’re sitting on a bad situation here,” she said.

Duke Energy, however, contends its sampling of resident well water indicates it is safe to drink. The company also said monitoring of groundwater near the steam station over the last eight years shows it is flowing toward the Yadkin River and away from the pond’s Leonard Road neighbors.

“The vast majority of groundwater exceedances at Buck have been for iron and manganese, which are common in North Carolina soils and pose no health risk to drinking water,” said Scott Sutton, spokesman for Duke Energy. “We have seen no indication in our monitoring that there are off-site groundwater impacts or any reason for concern for neighboring drinking water wells.”

Approximately 70 instances of cancer are recorded on this map of the land surrounding Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station. Leonard Road, where the Gobble and Thomas families live, has the most cases.
Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

Pete Harrison, a staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, charges Duke with avoiding visiting the homes and testing the wells that have shown contaminants in them.

Sutton said Duke, with the DENR, sampled well water from eight homes closest to the coal ash pond in May and found the water safe to drink. “I want to clarify one important point — Duke Energy has always been and remains very willing and eager to sample the wells of our neighbors. It was our idea in the first place.” He said that where detected, chromium and chromium-6 levels were “extremely low” and within the state’s groundwater standards.

The findings, however, differed from results of other well tests conducted by the Waterkeeper Alliance, which has prompted calls from residents and activists for Duke, the alliance and state officials to test the same wells at the same time.

The power plant’s willingness to cooperate with that request, however, has broken down over the request to test coal ash basins for chemical comparison, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance. Sutton disputed this, saying that Duke tests the groundwater around the coal ash basins several times a year and makes the date publicly available through the DENR.

“They denied any possibility that there could be a problem here, which I think on its face is a pretty unreasonable position to take,” Harrison said.

“The issue is the same issue Duke has from our own data from the private wells. How can we know that we trust that data?” he said.

“There is no trust,” Thomas agreed. “We’re deadlocked on account they won’t go along with what we feel like needs to be done because they know we’re going to find those chemicals in there.” Community wells are being retested next month by the Waterkeeper Alliance and the DENR, she said.

Thomas hopes the findings will help move Buck Steam Station up the list for cleanup.

“We are certainly hoping that when they do get around to cleaning it up, that they will take all the ash out and remove it to someplace that has a lined insert,” she said, “so it can’t get out and harm anybody else.”

There is an oily sheen to the groundwater on the Thomas’ land next to Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station.
Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

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