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Goldsboro Residents Told Not To Drink Contaminated Well Water

Five well owners near Goldsboro, who live close to a retired Duke Energy plant, have been warned not to use their water.  They fear nearby unlined coal ash basins could be contaminating their wells.  We hear from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency tasked with testing wells near the retired H.F. Lee plant and we hear from residents who attended a public meeting Tuesday evening. 

Folks across the state are concerned with water quality.  Especially after a storm water pipe burst at a retired 

Coal ash in the Dan River

Duke Energy coal plant in February 2014, dumping more than 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, an event that affected Virginia and North Carolina.  Since then, groundwater assessments are being conducted at all of Duke Energy’s 14 coal fired power plants, in accordance with the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014. 

This week, North Carolina officials warned more people who live near Duke Energy coal plants not to drink their well water, because many of the tests show high levels of toxic heavy metals like vanadium, lead and hexavalent chromium.  The State Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Wednesday, May 20th that 191 drinking wells failed to meet state groundwater standards, which is more than 90 percent of the wells tested so far. 

After the H.F. Lee Coal Plant retired in 2012, the H.F. Lee Combined Cycle Plant came online in December converting natural gas into energy.

Duke Energy Communications Manager Erin Culbert says the majority of wells sampled across the state aren’t showing elevated levels of boron and sulfates, which are key indicators of groundwater impacted by coal or coal ash.

“There are a variety of things that folks could have exceedances for in their wells.  But based on what we’re seeing in the vast majority of their samples, it looks to be naturally occurring constituents.”

Down East Coal Ash Coalition member Mindy Roberson isn’t buying it.

“The composition of the coal ash ponds throughout the state are so different it would be really hard to say one particular element or substance would be indicative that that was coal ash. They have tested the coal ash ponds all over the state and found higher levels of one thing in this one or lower levels in that one so they might be able to say that’s usually how it happens but I don’t think that’s the end all tell all.”

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources hired private laboratories to analyze samples in February and March.  Duke Energy is paying for the testing.  Public Information Officer for NCDENR Sarah Young says when they receive the test results, they send them to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“and they’re the folks that come up with the health risk evaluation which then gets sent back to DENR, and then sent to the resident in one package.”

Credit Duke Energy

In eastern North Carolina, there are two retired Duke Energy coal plants; the Sutton Plant in Wilmington and the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro.  Residents who live in the Rosewood community near the Lee plant fear coal ash is leaking from five unlined basins and contaminating their groundwater.  These concerns were exacerbated when five well owners received letters from NCDENR telling them their well water was unsafe for drinking.  Young says test results are now available for some residents living within 1,000 feet of the Wayne County plant. 

“There have been 20 wells identified.  There are eight wells with results back.  Seven out of the eight exceeded a 2L or ground water standard.”

This means seven of eight wells had elements like cobalt and manganese at levels higher than State groundwater standards.  Higher than normal pH levels and a chemical compound known as hexavalent chromium has been measured at some of the wells.  

The entrance of the retired H.F. Lee Plant near Goldsboro

In response, the Department of Health and Human Services recently sent out five health risk evaluations to residents near the H.F. Lee plant advising them not to drink their well water.  In the meantime, Duke Energy’s Erin Culbert says her company is in the process of reaching out to those who received letters of warning offering a temporary water delivery service for those who sign up.

“If folks are interested, we are working with a water delivery service that’s providing delivery once every two weeks. And so we’re able to get a sense from those individuals how many people are in their home and then they can calculate the number of bottles of water to drop off to those individuals.”

So far, Duke Energy is providing water delivery service to 80 people across the state. 

On Tuesday May 19th, a grassroots organization called Down East Coal Ash Coalition held a public meeting at the Wayne County Public Library for people to voice their concerns and ask questions about their well water results.  A few minutes before the meeting started, I noticed a woman wearing jeans and a blue shirt holding a manila envelope.  Hope, who told me she didn’t want to use her last name says she lives within 1,000 feet of the Lee plant.  She received a letter last Friday from DENR instructing her not to drink her well after unsafe levels of cobalt were detected.

Public meeting on Tuesday, May 19th at the Wayne County Public Library

“I have been drinking it for the past 15 years already, so at least I’m not growing a third eye ball yet.”

Hope’s mother and sister also live within 1,000 feet of the coal ash storage basins.  They were also told not to drink their well water after excess cobalt and manganese were found.  According to Duke Energy Communications Manager Erin Culbert, manganese and cobalt are not strongly associated with coal or coal ash.  She adds manganese is very common in North Carolina, with about 40 percent of private wells across the state exceeding current standards.

Johnnie Gurley and his wife Nancy have lived about a half a mile from the Lee plant for twenty years.  They’re still waiting the test results of heavy metal testing, but were told their water was unsafe to drink because of bacteria. 

“Sometimes I’m out in the garden, I’ll fill up my glass with water out of the spigot outside.  I’m thinking ‘Hey, my waters okay!’”

Nancy says she and her husband live a fairly active lifestyle and eat healthy. 

“I take care of myself, I go to the YMCA.  And Duke is bastardizing everything that I have done or believed in staying healthy.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Gurley think the water may be contributing to their recent health issues.

“I’ve had three heart attacks, nine stints, I’ve got sugar diabetes, I can’t say that came from that but I’ve had three uncles and one aunt that’s died from cancer.  And got one aunt that lives on Radford Drive, right behind me, she’s got cancer now.”

The letters warning people not to cook or drink with well water seems to have put the Rosewood community on edge.  The people I spoke with told me they want to use Duke’s water delivery system because their home site well is their primary source of water.  Until that happens, Hope says she and her family are filtering their water with a attachment she installed on the kitchen faucet. Johnnie Gurley says they’ve been purchasing water from the store.

“And pay $2.29 a case, in case anyone wants to know.  The water I use for tea I boil anyway so I’m not worried about the bacteria, but I am worried about the final part, the metals.”

It could be a couple of weeks before the Gurley’s receive their heavy metal test results. 

Credit Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr paddles near what he believes is coal ash seeping into the Neuse River.

At the Wayne County public meeting, Upper Neuse River Keeper Matthew Starr presented the results of his own testing near the Duke plant.  The unlined coal ash basins are very close to the Neuse River, and Starr says he’s seen evidence of coal ash leaking into the river.

“You pass the power plant on the right hand side, and you start seeing these bright orange seeps, coming out of the river bank and that is the coal ash contaminated water seeping and flowing over the land directly into the Neuse River.”

Starr says his surface water testing shows the presence of heavy metals associated with coal ash, like arsenic, selenium and mercury.  It’s not just the seepage that Starr is concerned about. 

Credit U.S. Geological Survey
Aerial photo of the H.F. Lee plant in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd

“The power plant itself is in a flood way flood zone, which means… Think of the 1999 hurricanes, Fran, Floyd. You have a tremendous amount of rain.  And there’s actually pictures taken from a USGS plane of this site shortly after this site and the entire plant is underwater.  So this is why this plant must be a high priority.”

When asked about the proximity of the coal ash basins to the Neuse River, Duke Energy’s Communications Manager Erin Culbert says they will take all of these factors into consideration as they conduct plant closures.

“For H.F. Lee, it will be one of the ten facilities across the state that will follow the timeline and schedule outlined in the Coal Ash Management Act that was passed last Fall.  So as part of that work, DENR and the Coal Ash Management Commission will be prioritizing all of the basins in the state and as part of the prioritization process, we will know under what deadline we have to close the basin, and what methods are available to close the basins.”

Culbert says possible options include capping the basin or discarding the coal ash at an onsite or offsite landfill.  DENR will prioritize basin closure by the end of the year.  The Coal Ash Management Act provides either a five, ten or fifteen year window to close basins across the state based on order of priority and risk.  For many living around the H.F. Lee plant, such as Down East Coal Ash Coalition member Mindy Roberson, it’s not quick enough. 

“I don’t think a timeline of we’ll have it cleaned up by 2020 or 2025 is sufficient because there is people are sick and dying right now because of we think the contamination they’re getting out of coal ash ponds.  So for a company that made I don’t know how many billion dollars in profit last year, it seems like they could move a little quicker.”

This is a complicated issue.  In the meantime, the company has started making good on its mandate to more safely dispose of coal ash.  On Thursday, May 21st, Duke Energy removed its first tractor trailer load of ash from its retired Riverbend power plant near Charlotte.  It’s being shipped to a fully lined landfill in Homer, Georgia.  

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.