Sherry Gobble has been wary of drinking the tap water in her neighborhood for more than a year.
“I feel like I’ve become very suspicious of all water,” she told ThinkProgress in November. “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.”
On Monday, her fears were confirmed. Nineteen households and a church in her community of Dukeville, North Carolina were sent letters by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) warning them not to drink or cook with well water due to elevated levels of toxic heavy metals, the Associated Press reported. Like Gobble’s home, each is located within a quarter mile of a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy.
The letters sent to Dukeville residents were part of a statewide testing of private drinking water wells near Duke Energy-owned coal ash dumps. That undertaking was sparked by an 82,000-ton coal ash spill from one of Duke’s storage ponds last year, which contaminated water.
In all, those tests conducted by DENR showed contamination of 87 private drinking water wells for households located near eight Duke plants across the state, the AP reported. The DENR tests only looked for contaminants found in coal ash — things like mercury, manganese, arsenic, and vanadium — and found of elevated levels of various chemicals depending on the location.
Duke Energy, however, is denying that any of the contamination is a result of leaky coal ash ponds. In a statement to ThinkProgress, Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert said each well had an absence of boron and sulfates, which she said are “key indicators of groundwater potentially impacted by coal ash, because they migrate more quickly than other trace elements.”
“Based on the state’s test results we’ve reviewed thus far, we have no indication that Duke Energy plant operations have influenced neighbors’ well water,” she said.
Others have taken issue with Duke’s explanation. Pete Harrison, a staff attorney at the non-profit Waterkeeper Alliance, said there could be explanations as to why boron and sulfates weren’t present — for instance, he said, the coal they were burning at the plant might have been low in those elements, meaning it might not show up in the waste.
“They’re ignoring what is there in the water and just pointing out what isn’t,” Harrison said. “I think it’s kind of a non-sequitur argument they’re trying to make.”
Dukeville had a particularly high number of letters sent by DENR notifying residents of water contamination, and according to the AP, several of the letters cited high levels of vanadium. Vanadium is a naturally occurring element, but high levels are often found in coal ash, and it’s classified as a probable carcinogen.
According to Harrison, six water wells in Dukeville contained vanadium at a level of more than .3 parts per billion (ppb), which is the state’s maximum groundwater standard for the element. Five of those wells had levels from 1.6 to 10.6 ppb, he said, but one had a level of 25 ppb — nearly 86 times the maximum standard.
The people who get their water from that well are James and Levene Mahaley, who have lived near the coal ash pond since 1954, the AP reported.
The Mahaleys were reportedly aware of their contamination before the letters were sent out, telling the AP that Duke Energy officials came to their home in November to offer them shipments of bottled water, and told them not to tell anyone about it. According to Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott — the lead advocate for protecting the watershed in Dukeville — Duke also gave the Mahaleys a book about the negative health impacts of vanadium.
“The story is that Duke has known that these people had high levels of vanadium. They knew that. They gave them water. They knew they had health effects,” he said. “But they’ve still been sending out letters to the community saying everything’s fine.”
Culbert took issue with that notion as well, saying the Mahaley residence was the only well in Dukeville that exceeded 18 ppb, a level the state had, at the time, said was safe for vanadium in groundwater. The state updated its groundwater standards to .3 ppb this year. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium.
As for the Mahaley’s recollection that Duke Energy told them to keep quiet about the contamination, Culbert said she was “not aware of any expectation that the Mahaleys keep that information private.”
Testing of the water wells in these areas is far from over. According to Harrison, many of the letters sent out to residents notifying them of contamination said re-sampling would be recommended in one month, due to the fact that the labs could not reliably show specific vanadium levels below 25 ppb. So, while the labs are confident vanadium is present in the wells where it’s shown up, they’re not totally confident how much is there.
Culbert said Duke Energy would pay for any additional sampling or re-sampling that needed to be done.
Absent immediate direct evidence that the widespread contamination of well water near Duke Energy coal ash ponds is in fact the result of coal ash, Harrison said the Waterkeeper Alliance would keep trying to prove the link.
“Our task now is to continue to investigate the connection through the groundwater between these ash ponds and these people’s wells,” he said. “We know these ponds are leaking, but its much more difficult to prove where these contaminants are coming from because it’s all deep in the ground.”