DUKEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA — It was fall of 2012, and only a short metal fence separated Sherry Gobble from a tree full of bright, orange persimmons. It was the third year they had blossomed, and Sherry was sick of watching them grow, fall, and get eaten by deer. Half-joking, she told her husband that one day she would climb that fence, pick those persimmons, and bake them into one of her famous pies.
“There were a number of trees across that fence, but I felt connected to that one,” Gobble recalled from her kitchen table in the tiny community of Dukeville, North Carolina. “Now it’s just a stick out of the ground.”
Today, most of the trees sticking out of the pond next to Sherry’s backyard are branchless and leafless, hacked off at the top like broken matchsticks. And the pond is actually a waste pit, storing six million tons of coal ash — a byproduct from coal-burning at the neighboring Buck Steam Station, owned by Duke Energy. The coal ash contains chemicals like arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead.
Coal ash is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States, but there are currently no federal regulations surrounding how it should be disposed. The Environmental Protection Agency is required to release its first-ever set of coal ash regulations on December 19, which could finally set the course for regulating the toxic substance. But like all proposed EPA regulations, they face inevitable hurdles — litigation, lobbying, and implementation delays from both environmentalists and the coal industry, depending on what the rules entail.
For now, coal plants store the waste in unlined, man-made ponds, like the one in Gobble’s backyard. Questions have been raised as to the safety of those ponds. In Dukeville, which surrounds the Buck Steam Station’s waste pits, numerous residents have cancer, tumors, or birth defects. Duke Energy denies that coal ash is causing the problems. But Gobble knows one thing for sure.
“Since I’ve lived here, we have seen so many people diagnosed, watched so many people die,” she said. “Something has to be done.”
Named After The Enemy
Before all the trees sticking out of the pond next to Gobble’s backyard died, before there was even a pond, Dukeville was a simple factory town, named after Duke Energy’s co-founder, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke.
It was never a real town, legally. You can’t find it when you type it into Google, or on a map of the state. The only reason the name “Dukeville” itself ever existed, according to North Carolina office of Archives and History researcher Michael Hill, was likely because the area was so rural that it needed its own post office, and they needed to call it something.
“Most of these small North Carolina communities, particularly ones founded in the early 20th century, began as post offices,” Hill explained. Eventually, though, the federal government’s rural delivery service started and post offices were no longer needed. “Many of these small communities lost their reason for being,” he said.
But for whatever reason, the name stuck in Dukeville, and residents to this day proudly state that they live in Dukeville, even if they think the company it’s named after is their enemy.
“I’ve lived here all 81 years of my life,” said Ron Thomas, a cancer survivor whose backyard also borders one of Duke’s coal ash ponds. “Why should I call it anything else?”
A Lifetime Of Pollution
Sitting in the living room of their pre-Civil War era home, the house Ron was born in and that JoAnn has lived in for the last 51 years, JoAnn Thomas began listing names. Each name was someone she’s known in Dukeville, who has either died from or been diagnosed with some form of cancer or tumor. Looking at the ceiling, then to the ground, tapping her right hand with her left pointer finger with each name, JoAnn rattled off the names of about 15 people, where they lived, what kind of cancer they had, and whether or not they had died.
It’s not the first time she has done it. In fact, Ron and JoAnn recently compiled a list of all the neighbors they knew of who had died from cancer, been diagnosed, or had a tumor, and imposed them on a map of the town. The list has 70 names, many of whom are deceased. Dukeville’s current, living population is somewhere in the vicinity of 200 to 300 people, and the community is very tight-knit, she said.
“You get a little weary sometimes, thinking about it,” JoAnn said. “Things get a little heavy.”
CREDIT: Ron and JoAnn Thomas
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services insists this isn’t abnormal. In a report released this October, the agency said the 2,301 cancer cases reported in the entirety of Rowan County from 1990 to 2013 were spread out over a long period of time, and largely occurred in people who are 50-years-old or older.
“Many people do not realize how common cancers are,” the report said. “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.”
But both the Thomas family and their neighbor, Sherry Gobble, don’t believe it. They cite the North Carolina government’s cozy relationship with Duke Energy as the basis for their distrust; the state’s governor, Pat McCrory, is a former company executive, and McCrory’s state regulators have repeatedly prevented environmental groups from taking legal action against Duke’s coal ash ponds.
“When I voted for Pat McCrory, I had no idea his Duke ties, and back then it probably wouldn’t have mattered,” Gobble said. “I trusted them.”
For the Thomas family, it’s also personal. Their list of cancer cases includes them both. Ron has survived both prostate cancer and skin cancer, and is now receiving therapy to remove heavy metals from his blood. JoAnn survived a benign brain tumor on her pituitary gland, and has had kidney failure twice. Their daughter has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease that causes chronic inflammation. The Thomas’ say they have no family history of any of these conditions.
Both JoAnn and Thomas attribute their health problems to a lifetime of drinking, bathing, and playing in well water they didn’t know was contaminated. Both the Thomas family and the Gobbles found out this summer from the group Waterkeeper Alliance that the water wells surrounding their homes contained aluminum, chromium, lead, iron and manganese. All wellheads located within one thousand feet of the ash ponds that were tested by Waterkeeper Alliance contained hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen.
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
The findings sparked a moment of horrifying realization for Ron. In the forest behind his home, which borders Duke Energy’s property, he pointed to a small stream of water slicked with a gold and orange sheen. He said he used to play in it as a child. His children played there, too. His six-year-old grandson probably would have played in it, as well, if the Waterkeeper Alliance hadn’t told them it was full of chemicals — the same ones in their drinking water, and the same ones found in Duke’s coal ash pond.
“We were going to build him a tree-house out there. His dad found the perfect tree right down near the stream,” JoAnn said. “But we didn’t know about the seep.”
The theory about how Duke Energy’s chemicals might have gotten in Dukeville’s water has been well-documented. The ponds storing the company’s coal ash are unlined, and they’ve been there for more than 50 years. Over time, residents believe the chemicals from the coal ash has seeped into the groundwater, and into the underground water wells.
Duke Energy has maintained that this is impossible, insisting the groundwater flows the opposite direction from the properties that are testing positive for a harmful level of chemicals.
“I would never want to downplay anyone’s health concerns, I think those are real concerns for neighbors in some aspects,” Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert told the AP in June. “But I certainly think it’s important to note that there’s no evidence that connects that to the plant. It’s not consistent with what we’re seeing in our groundwater monitoring data.”
Culbert told ThinkProgress that it has sampled 15 private wells of neighbors near the Buck Steam Station, and contracted with an independent third-party lab to analyze the samples. Those samples, Culbert said, showed no indication that the company’s ash ponds contaminated the water. In addition, some neighbors that accused Duke of being responsible for their water contamination have refused to let the company test their water, Culbert said.
“We care deeply about our neighbors and have met extensively with many of them to discuss sample results,” she said. “We have offered to sample their wells a number of times, and that invitation stands when they are ready. We remain hopeful that Duke and/or DENR will be allowed access to complete that sampling so we all can have the best available information”
In May, Duke told the AP that it had tested eight wells, and only found higher than normal levels of zinc at one home. In five of the eight wells, Duke found trace amounts of hexavalent chromium, but Culbert told the AP that those findings were “extremely low.” Culbert also told ThinkProgress that many components of coal ash — such as iron, manganese and chromium — are also naturally occurring in soils, so utilities frequently use boron and sulfates as indicators of coal combustion products. Culbert said no boron was found in Duke’s test.
The wells Duke Energy tested were not the same ones the Waterkeepers tested, except for the wells at the Thomas’ home. The company would not say which wells they tested, noting they wanted to protect the privacy of homeowners.
Duke Energy’s tests are mostly in line with groundwater tests that have been performed by North Carolina environmental regulators since 2011. According to an AP public records request, those state tests showed that Dukeville wells failed state groundwater standards on only 226 readings out of more than 2,500 since 2011. But at the well on the Thomas’ property line, just a few feet from the coal ash pond, groundwater standards were exceeded for chromium each time it was monitored.
The Erin Brockovich Chemical
The water well tests performed by Duke Energy and the Waterkeeper Alliance both have one thing in common: they all show a presence of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, in some well water surrounding Dukeville homes. The North Carolina government has not tested for hexavalent chromium.
State officials are still trying to determine the cause of the chemical’s presence. But if the name “hexavalent chromium” sounds familiar, it may be because it’s the same chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader who helped build the now-famous legal case over drinking water contamination in a southern California town. That contamination was the result of pollution from a power company, and the chemical at hand was hexavalent chromium.
For Sherry Gobble, her present life’s similarities to the famous case are too much to handle. She remembers, while recently watching the movie based on the case, a specific scene where Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts) tries to explain the pollution situation to a local woman in denial. The woman, Donna Jensen, insists her water is fine. “The guys from PG&E told me it was fine,” she says. As Brockovich continues to explain, a look of terrified realization spreads across Jensen’s face, and Jensen suddenly runs to grab her young children out of the pool. “Ashley! Jenna! Get out of the pool!”
“I feel I know that feeling … I remembered the fear,” Gobble, who also has two young children, said. “I had to turn it off. I couldn’t watch it.”
Her fear is rooted in research. According to scientists at the National Toxicology Program, hexavalent chromium in drinking water is carcinogenic. After drinking water with the chemical, mice and rats contracted cancerous tumors in their small intestines and mouths. In addition, Chinese scientists found that people with high levels of concentrated chromium in their drinking water developed high rates of stomach cancers.
Hope For A Solution
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to release its first-ever proposed regulations for coal ash disposal on December 19. Right now, coal ash ponds are federally designated as nonhazardous, and enforcement over them is left to the states.
The EPA is not crafting the regulations it on its own accord; they come after a long battle with environmental and public health groups, who had to sue the EPA in 2012 to require the agency to implement safeguards from coal ash. The lawsuit came after promises by President Obama, even before he took office in 2008, that he would craft policies to protect Americans from toxic coal waste.
But the policies never happened, partially in the face of dispute from power companies who said regulations should not designate coal ash as “hazardous.” Duke Energy in particular argued that designating coal ash as a hazardous waste would “not provide additional protection to human health and the environment,” and reduce the ability to recycle coal ash into concrete and wallboard.
Environmentalists have disputed that claim.
While the debate over what regulations should entail continued, however, coal ash had contaminated more than 200 sites nationwide, according to environmental law firm Earthjustice, a fact that prompted the firm to sue.
“Taking overdue action to safeguard communities from coal ash was the first promise the Obama Administration made to the American public,” Earthjustice said in a statement in January, right after the EPA settled the lawsuit, and agreed to craft the regulations by December 2014. “Now we have certainty that EPA is going to take some action to protect us and all of the hundreds of communities across the country that are being poisoned by coal ash dumps.”
It’s not yet clear what exactly the new regulations will entail, but environmentalists say they hope coal ash would officially be declared a hazardous waste, and that companies would be required to dispose of it in dry, lined landfills that have a lower chance of leakage. They also hope the regulations will include mandatory and frequent groundwater testing at ash dumps, shared public data on the results of that testing, and strict timelines for power companies to clean up the ponds.
Regulations on coal ash won’t change the fact that there are no specific federal standards for hexavalent chromium in drinking water, however, and no known plans to propose one (There are federal standards for chromium in drinking water, but none for hexavalent chromium specifically). The last mention was by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, when it said the EPA is “reviewing health effects data of hexavalent chromium and may set limits on its levels in drinking water in the future.”
So in situations like Dukeville, where hexavalent chromium is in the water but general chromium levels are not exceeded, no legal standards are violated. And the result is that affected residents must take the task of getting clean water into their own hands.
For Sherry Gobble, that means going through two 24-packs of bottled water every week. In the mud room next to the kitchen, she has stacks of huge plastic jugs for cooking, bathing, and cleaning. The day before our interview, she said she filled 34 jugs at the municipal water station, a process took her about four hours.
“I feel like I’ve become very suspicious of all water,” she said. “When I go to a friend’s house, and they offer coffee or tea, I don’t drink it because I don’t know where it came from.”
Gobble said she feels bitter. Bitter than Duke Energy won’t provide her with drinking water, that she has to take her kids to get blood drawn once a month, that she no longer bakes wedding cakes for friends because she feels like the water makes her home dirty. She feels tired from the media attention, and disappointed in her state government, who she says has been unresponsive to her concerns. Most of all, she just feels different.
“This has changed my life and I don’t like it,” she said. “You become angry and bitter inside. It makes you suspicious of everything. You’re not the way you were before.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that arsenic was found in a water well near the Buck Steam Station. Arsenic was found in a seep sample, not a well.