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By Catherine Clabby

In the roomy First Presbyterian Church in downtown Belmont this week, Duke Energy employees briefed about 75 people who live very close to Allen Steam Station about some big decisions they face.

That’s because after having no control over the impact of living in the immediate vicinity to more than 100 million tons of coal ash, neighbors within half a mile of 14 Duke Energy properties now have some choices.

Jessica Bednarcik, the Duke Energy engineer managing the utility’s water replacement projects, points to League of Municipality data used to estimate 25 years of water bills for Allen neighbors, which the utility will cover. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Neighbors accepting a state-mandated new drinking water supply from Duke can choose to get linked up to municipal water, with the utility covering water bills for 25 years up to a total of $22,000. Or, they can choose a Culligan water filtration system with maintenance costs also covered.

If homeowners near Duke properties choose to sell but the buying price is less than the appraised market value for similar homes not neighboring coal ash, Duke will voluntarily make up the difference in cost, as long as the deal is sealed by October 2019.

And Duke will cut all the neighbors a check for $5,000, as long as they agree to never sue or otherwise seek additional money from the utility for groundwater impacts or the new drinking water supplies in the future. People can obtain new water supplies and a subsidy on a house sale without taking that money or signing a release.

That last offer, with the exact wording not yet finalized, does not sit well with some coal plant neighbors whose lawyers have pressed Duke to address all that homeowners have endured. Those frustrations include the nuisance of using bottled water in their homes for nearly two years and conflicting guidance on health risks they face from coal ash over time.

“If problems occur, that is going to fall on society. I’m not okay on that,” said Jim Mitchem, a retired 32-year employee of Duke Energy at the Belmont session whose 91-year-old father lives within half a mile of the Allen Steam Station outside Belmont.

The next chapter

Duke’s ongoing information sessions for neighbors of 14 power plant properties is its next step in a high-profile and high-dollar chain of events that started in February 2014 after 38,000 tons of the utility’s coal ash spilled into the Dan River near Eden.

In 2015, Duke pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and environmental project costs after the spill. At the time, North Carolina legislators imposed a timetable for the utility to shut down all of its 32 coal ash impoundments. Then lawmakers amended the plan last summer – with the utility’s support – to require Duke to offer new drinking water supplies to people living within one half mile of coal ash impoundments by October 2018.

At Monday’s meeting in Belmont, Duke employees repeatedly emphasized testing by the state Department of Environmental Quality or Duke’s contractors has not shown contaminants from coal ash infiltrating drinking wells. The utility is providing new water supplies only to help neighbors to achieve peace of mind, they stressed.

Sean DeNeale, a Duke Energy groundwater engineer, stood in front of color-coded maps of the peninsula, bordered by the Catawba River on the east and the South Fork Catawba River on the west, that the Allen plant shares with the homeowners.

This map shows boron detected in shallow monitoring wells on the grounds of and near Allen Steam Plant. Wells marked in red had boron detected at levels matching or higher than the state limits of the state standard for the contaminant in groundwater. The broken orange line shows the half-mile boundary around the Duke Energy property. Image courtesy of Duke Energy.

Three maps showed measurements of boron, a contaminant that can also be found in coal ash (along with mercury, cadmium and arsenic). Boron concentrations exceeding North Carolina groundwater standards have been detected in shallow wells in the impoundments but not in wells serving 272 neighboring households.

Also encouraging, he said, is the hydrogeology that governs where groundwater moves below the ground.

“The water is flowing away from the wells toward the river,” he said.

Duke’s plans to cap the coal ash at the Allen site rather than excavate it will reduce the chances that any of the waste will flow into the river, DeNeale said, because the impoundment will be drained of water and sealed with a waterproof cover. That will eliminate the risk of tainted water from the impoundment from infiltrating groundwater below.

“Lateral movement will not occur,” he argued.

Some want it gone

Despite the certainty expressed by DeNeale and other Duke employees, some people familiar with the Allen property and its proximity to the Catawba River want the waste gone from the unlined impoundments.

After being lobbied by frequently frustrated Allen site neighbors, the Gaston County Commissioners in January passed a resolution urging Duke to both expedite getting new water supplies to the Allen plant neighbors and to process the coal ash there so it could be recycled as cement. Cement is in high demand in the Charlotte region where Belmont sits, they stressed.

Sean Neale of Duke Energy, right, listens as Jim Mitchem poses a question about risks of water contamination at the Allen Steam Plant outside Belmont. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby.

In a letter supporting that move, Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins argued leaving coal ash in the ground at Allen is too risky.

“Allen is a particularly dangerous site for many reasons. First and foremost, it has almost one mile of perimeter exposed to the River where flooding is increasingly problematic with upstream development/runoff,” Perkins wrote. “A failure of the dam and coal ash would be a disaster not just for the river and homes across from Allen, but it would have significant impacts on drinking water, recreation and property values in the area as well.”

Perkins in December detected a pipe leaking contaminated water from a closed coal ash impoundment at Allen, which Duke has fixed.

Duke Energy has stressed that the North Carolina law allows for coal ash waste to be capped at some of its properties so long as it is monitored to ensure that it is not leaching contamination. State law also requires the company to enhance its dams at sites, which it has done.

Utility spokeswoman Erin Culbert on Monday said people sometimes underestimate the environmental impact of moving coal ash from an impoundment, including truck traffic and dust that it can produce.

For instance, company estimates say it would take 900,000 truck trips to transport all the coal ash stored in two impoundments at the Allen site, she said.

Once Duke finishes its closure plans for its basins, state Department of Environmental Quality staff will assess them. Public comments will be solicited as part of that review.

More want in

A fraction of the people who attended Monday’s meeting do not live within the half-mile zone that entitles them to new water supplies outside Belmont. But they wanted in on the deal.

Angelina Recinella lives outside the half-mile boundary where people are offered new drinking water supplies. But she wants in. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

One of them is Angela Recinella, whose neighbors across the street and next door rest within the boundary. Testing of her well water, she said, has turned up boron, the trace chemical that DeNeale, the Duke engineer, linked to coal ash contaminants.

During a conversation, Recinella wondered if that may have played a role in miscarriages she’s endured. To protect her toddler, herself and her husband from any water contamination and to shield the value of her property, Recinella said she would gladly accept the $5,000 payment some oppose and sign anything Duke required saying she would not sue in the future, she said.

Not being included doesn’t make sense to her. “There is going to be a water line right by property,” she said.

As she had many times before, Recinella on Monday reminded Jessica Bednarcik, the chemical engineer who is leading the utility’s permanent water supply project, of her desire.

Bednarcik was friendly and empathetic but said any exception to the half-mile rule would have to be made by the state, which can include homes farther away if there is any evidence of coal ash contamination.

“If the state comes back and says a well has contaminants, we’ll go forward,”  Bednarcik said later in an interview, acknowledging that while that outcome is worth pursuing, it is unlikely to occur.

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Catherine Clabby

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...