Less Government Patience, More Government Action Needed on North Carolina Groundwater Contamination

By Shawn Collins of The Collins Law Firm, P.C.

Why isn't the State of North Carolina doing more to protect its own citizens against contaminated water?

For years, North Carolina has departed from the practice of most states, and allowed political heavyweight Duke Energy to store coal ash-the toxic residue of coal burning-in unlined pits near bodies of water and even residents. No liners required.1 No man-made barrier to prevent the dangerous ash from leaking into area groundwater supplies, even though many residents living near Duke Energy power plants and its coal ash pits depend on the groundwater for drinking, bathing, and preparing food.

Reportedly, Duke Energy now stores some 120 million tons of coal ash in the Duke Energy-friendly State.1 I suppose that's what happens when you make it cheap for companies to store dangerous chemicals in your state...they wind up storing lots of dangerous chemicals in your state.

Recently, the North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) notified families living near a Duke Energy power plant that tests of the water in their groundwater wells reveals the presence of vanadium and hexavalent chromium-chemicals often associated with coal ash. 1 Both are toxic to humans. They are not supposed to be in the water that people are drinking. DENR has therefore told these families-20 of them, in one mailing-to no longer use their water.1

So, not wishing to be poisoned by the water coming out of the ground, what do they do for water?

Duke Energy-while maintaining that "there is no proof" that the company is the source of the dangerous chemicals in their neighbors' water-is supplying them bottled water to live on.1 So, instead of drinking and preparing food with water from a tap, these families can now fumble their way through large jugs of bottled water to accomplish those tasks. And if they wish to bathe in water that is not laced with toxic chemicals, they can presumably pour several jugs of Duke Energy's bottled water into the bath tub, and try it that way.

Says a Duke Energy spokesperson about its bottled water for the families: "We want people to have peace of mind".1 As if peace of mind came in a bottle. Even a large one.

While common sense says that bottled water is only a short term answer here, no one seems to be in a hurry to figure out where these folks will get clean water over the long term. For its part, Duke Energy says that, if its own testing proves that it is indeed the source of the contamination, it will consider paying to connect these families to a local, safe water network.2 But Duke Energy says that its testing will not be done until 4 months from now-August 2015.2

For its part, the County Commission-which controls access to the local, safe water network-doesn't appear all that interested in allowing its network to be used for the protection of families in danger from contaminated groundwater. Says one of the commissioners: "our intention is not to build a water system simply to take care of 20 families."2

What the hell is going on here? Isn't anybody in a rush to help these people who the state has bluntly told not to drink their water because it is so dangerous?

Look at how the powerful organizations all around these folks are letting them down:

  • Why did North Carolina allow Duke Energy to store its 120 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits, making the groundwater underneath them-and the home water supplies that depend directly on the groundwater-sitting ducks for coal ash contamination? Even if Duke Energy is ultimately determined to not be the source of the contamination, allowing coal ash to sit for years in unlined pits is absolutely indefensible.
  • What took so long for the State to require Duke Energy to test the groundwater around its coal ash pits for contamination? It took the State until 2014 to pass the required-testing law-years after it foolishly allowed Duke Energy to dump its coal ash in the unlined pits. While the State should never have allowed such dumping in the first place, having nevertheless allowed it, at the very least the State should have mandated regular groundwater testing...to see if its foolish capitulation to a powerful company was endangering residents.
  • Why does Duke Energy get to test for itself whether it has contaminated the groundwater? While I'm not suggesting that Duke Energy would rig the testing, the families affected by the contamination have the right to expect that the testing would be done by someone with an incentive to find a problem, if there is one. Trust is an important part of all of this.
  • Why is the testing taking so long? Duke Energy says that it will complete testing in 4 months. Even if it holds to that schedule, that's too long. Perhaps if Duke Energy executives lived in the areas with the newly-discovered contaminated water-and their children had to drink and bathe in bottled water until the problem was solved-the company would act with more urgency.
  • And what's with the water commission? If it's not the commission's "intention to build a water system" to protect families with contaminated groundwater coming into their homes, through no fault of their own, what is the commission's intention? What are they in business for, anyway?

These are unfortunate questions, but they must be asked. And the government of North Carolina-at all levels-must decide whose side it's on.

1 The Guardian - "Duke Energy to Hand Out Bottled Water in North Carolina after Wells Polluted" (April 28, 2015)

2 Salisbury Post - "Duke Could Build Water Line if Plant Contaminated Water" (April 29, 2015)