Buck Steam Station
7:24 am
Thu June 19, 2014

Environmental Group Claims Carcinogenic Contaminents in Private Well Water Near Retired Duke Plant

Coal ash waste from a retired Duke Energy plant is being connected to contaminated well water in Rowan County.

This is one of four coal ash ponds at Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station in Rowan County. Environmental groups accuse Duke of knowing for years that waste from these ponds was and continues to contaminate the well water of about 150 nearby residents.
Credit Duke Energy

In 2013, Duke Energy shutdown the Buck Steam Station. It was built in 1926 in northern Rowan County on the Yadkin River. The plant has four unlined coal ash basins holding about six million tons of waste. Now the Waterkeeper Alliance claims it has evidence some of this waste is leaking into the water of nearby private, residential wells. The group is an international water protection advocate.

Dean Naujoks is on the board and he’s also the Yadkin Riverkeeper. "We started finding hexavalent chromium as well as other contaminants you find in coal ash in people's private wells." Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen. North Carolina has no standard for a safe level in ground water. However, the state limit for total chromium in ground water is 10 parts per billion. 

According to Naujoks, they pulled water from 13 sites and an independent, certified lab reviewed all samples. He says the chromium level in some samples were four to 10 times higher than the state standard. "There's a lot of issues with brain cancers, brain tumors, birth defects that go all the way back to the 1980's," explains Naujoks. "We believe those are linked to people living near the coal ash ponds and drinking contaminated water." Since March 2014, the group has been testing private well water around the Buck plant. According to the Waterkeeper Alliance, about 150 residents are at risk. Naujoks also says the group found levels of lead, iron, manganese, arsenic, and boron well above state groundwater standards.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy has been testing residential wells around the Buck plant since 2006. Spokesperson Erin Culbert says residents are not in danger. "We're not seeing anything in the ground water that could potentially be a health concern." Last month, Duke Energy pulled water samples from eight private wells in roughly the same area surveyed by the Waterkeeper Alliance. According to Culbert, Duke also used an accredited, independent lab to examine samples. "When it was detected at all, total chromium and chromium-6 are extremely low and are well within the state’s groundwater standards that are set to protect public health," says Culbert. "It's important to know chromium is a trace element that is found naturally in coal but it’s also found naturally in soil in general." Culbert points to sediment in the water samples as one explanation for the extreme differences in the data presented by Duke and by the Waterkeeper Alliance. "Turbidity is small pieces of sediment. If a lot of sediment was high in the samples they collected, then that can skew the results fairly significantly."

Both groups say they used Environmental Protection Agency-approved methodology to collect water samples. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources also sampled residential well water around the Buck Steam Station. Its data also says the ground water is safe.  But Naujoks is critical of the state agency. "The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, they have for years shielded Duke from enforcement, to make Duke clean up the coal ash ponds. It doesn't make any sense," said Naujoks.

"The state agency has the ability to do this, that's their mission to protect public health and the environment and yet they just fail to continue do that." Now, Naujoks and the Waterkeeper Alliance want Duke to prove it's a good neighbor by giving residents living around the Buck Steam Station access to clean, healthy water. "They need to clean up that coal ash, get that community water lines immediately and then work on the health issues where those people are being impacted"

According to Culbert, Duke will continue monitoring the water quality of residential wells. "I think it's important to have open dialogue with plant neighbors. Making available to have their water sampled if they’re immediately next to an ash basin and they have a concern, we want to help allay that concern and give them the confidence to know their water quality is safe," says Culbert. "If those conditions were to change in the future operation of that site, then Duke Energy would act and take prompt action to resolve it."

Buck Combined Cycle Station replaces the old Buck Steam Station in Rowan County. The new plant uses flexible fossil generation technologies. It came on line in 2011.
Credit Duke Energy

On the site of the retired Buck Steam Station is the new Buck Combined Cycle Plant. It's a 620 megawatt natural gas facility that efficiently generates electricity. It came online in late 2011.

Currently, the parties are tangled in a legal battle. In March, an appellate judge ordered Duke to clean up all coal ash ponds and address all sources of ground water contamination. Duke is now appealing that ruling.

Duke Energy and the Waterkeeper Alliance have different interpretations of recent water samplings from residential well water around the Buck Steam Station.