This story has been updated with a statement from attorneys representing families affected by coal ash.

By Catherine Clabby

Duke Energy intends to offer a “financial supplement” along with new water supplies to homeowners living near 14 utility properties around North Carolina that contain coal ash waste.

It’s not known how much money Duke will offer neighbors. Nor is it clear what terms or conditions would accompany any payment, utility spokeswoman Erin Culbert told NC Health News.

But the announcement acknowledges, to a degree, what some Duke Energy property neighbors have said for months: Proximity to once-obscure coal ash impoundments is harmful to property values.

“Neighbors have told us they worry about their property values or the burden of new water bills, and we’re exploring ways to address that as we provide permanent water solutions in these communities,” Mike Hughes, Duke Energy vice president of community relations in North Carolina, said in a written statement.

The news came tucked in a press release Wednesday where Duke Energy announced that it was almost finished with plans to offer new drinking water supplies to about 950 people living near millions of tons of coal ash waste stored on 14 properties.

The utility’s water-replacement proposal, required by state law and subject to approval by state regulators, was expected this month. But word of potential payments caught nearby property owners by surprise.

Amy Brown of Belmont, a neighbor to the Allen Steam Station, said she was confused by Duke’s announcement and contacted the utility Wednesday. But she learned nothing more.

A recent tweet from Amy Brown demonstrates that neighbors to coal ash impoundments remain concerned about affects on their property values. Brown, an outspoken critic of Duke Energy and DEQ, lives in Belmont, near Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station.

“They say that they acknowledge our concerns and want to give us peace of mind. Why didn’t you acknowledge our concerns 20 months ago?” Brown asked.

“Why did they force us to hire an attorney? Why would I meet with them to discuss a financial supplement without my attorney?”

UPDATE (12/8/16): Attorneys representing hundreds of families living near coal ash impoundments on Thursday said Duke Energy’s announcement on Wednesday raised more questions than answers. It’s not clear how Duke will handle the costs and timing of replacing water supplies or address blows to properties values, concerns over long-term health effects and the nuisance of using bottled water for so many months, said a statement from attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, Bill Graham of Wallace & Graham, The Law Offices of Bryan Brice, Jr., and the Baron & Budd law firm.

Mandatory water supplies

Duke Energy has provided bottled water to hundreds of people living near its properties storing a total of 115 million tons of coal ash for months. Cooking and other household tasks using only bottled water has been both a challenge and source of stress for those neighbors, including Brown.

An amended Coal Ash Management Act passed by the General Assembly this past summer requires Duke Energy to provide new water supplies to households dependent on well water that are located within half a mile of any coal ash impoundments.

Preference must be given to linking homes to municipal water supplies, the legislation says. If that is cost prohibitive, whole-home filtration systems can be installed. One or the other, if feasible, must be completed by October 2018.

If the utility provides the water supplies and makes dam repairs where needed, the state could allow Duke Energy to leave coal ash in unlined pits at half of the 14 properties, including the three largest.

On Wednesday, Duke announced it wants to offer public water connections or water-filter systems to homeowners living close to Allen Steam Station in Belmont, Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure, H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro, Marshall Steam Station in Terrell, Rogers Energy Complex in Mooresboro and Weatherspoon Plant in Lumberton.

Duke is proposing offering filter systems, along with maintenance of the systems, for neighbors living in “remote” areas near Belews Creek Steam Station in Belews Creek, Mayo Plant in Roxboro and Roxboro Plant in Semora.

This Duke Energy chart reports the amounts of coal ash on 14 utility properties in North Carolina as of June 2016. Ash is being moved off grounds to lined waste sites at sites marked (2). “Path to low” refers to sites where Duke can keep ash in unlined impoundments after any needed dam repairs are finished and after neighbors receive new drinking water supplies.
This Duke Energy chart reports the amounts of coal ash on 14 utility properties in North Carolina as of June 2016. Ash is being moved off grounds to lined waste sites at sites marked (2). “Path to low” refers to sites where Duke can keep ash in unlined impoundments after any needed dam repairs are finished and after neighbors receive new drinking water supplies.

Properties near the Dan River and Riverbend plants are already connected to public water supplies, the utility press release says. The utility is still finalizing plans for neighbors to the Asheville and Sutton plants and must submit them to DEQ by December 15.

Still a proposal

North Carolina started its push to require Duke Energy to clean up unlined coal ash pits at the 14 sites in 2014, after a February spill that year at  the Dan River Steam Station site released tens of thousands of metal-laced sludge into the Dan River.

The utility pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act after the spill and agreed to a $68 million criminal fine and to donate $34 million to environmental projects as a result.

The original 2014 state Coal Ash Management Act required that pollution risks be assessed one by one at each utility property. But the amended version, passed last summer and supported by Duke Energy leaders, allows DEQ to automatically designate the seven Duke properties as low-risk, as long as Duke energy meets the water-supply and well-repair requirements.

DEQ must assess the utility’s water supply plans. The agency’s staff will review the “type of water, location of house, cost of installation and any other proposals,” said agency spokesman Mike Rusher.

The financial payments Duke described so vaguely Wednesday are not required by law, however.

“We believe offering a new water supply, which is required by law, and volunteering financial supplements address the concerns they’ve shared with us,” Culbert said. “Beyond that, it would be up to those individuals to decide next steps. It’s worth noting that our financial supplement is being offered to all eligible well owners in the half-mile radius, whether they have legal representation or not.”

Some neighboring property owners and many environmental groups want Duke energy to dig up all the coal ash at all of its properties. Contamination from the waste has been detected in groundwater at each location, raising concerns that if not dug up and placed in lined pits it could spread.

“These communities and their water resources will be safe only when Duke Energy moves its coal ash out of dangerous and polluting unlined pits to safe, dry lined storage,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who has engaged in multiple court battles with Duke over coal ash risks to public waters.

Duke Energy stressed that monitoring data has not proven that coal ash basins are contaminating neighbors’ wells. Research published by Duke University scientists, for one, recently showed that carcinogenic hexavalent chromium found in some nearby wells is likely a natural byproduct of local geology, not leaching coal ash.

Once DEQ approves a plan, Duke Energy will work directly with owners of about the 950 households to discuss their options and obtain their choices — where offered —  for new water supply sources. Duke will submit all of that information to DEQ for final approval before proceeding.

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...