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Chemicals from coal ash leaching into groundwater near Flemington community

Source:, October 5, 2013
By: Kate Elizabeth Queram

Before Kimberly Wood takes a shower, brews a cup of tea or boils water for cooking, she makes a deal with herself: Don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it. Don’t think about how this sip, that bite, the very next drop of water could finally be the one that makes her sick.
Wood is one of about 200 residents in the Flemington community, a tiny, low-income neighborhood off U.S. 421, just south of Duke Energy Progress’ Sutton Steam Plant. In 1978, the neighborhood’s drinking water was contaminated when a host of pollutants from a nearby landfill seeped, unnoticed, into private wells. The mess was eventually cleaned up when the neighborhood was placed on New Hanover County’s water system via two drinking-water wells, now managed by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.
But those two wells were drilled just a half mile from the power plant, where arsenic, boron and other poisons are leaching from unlined coal-ash ponds into area groundwater supplies. The contaminated water plume is slowly creeping toward the new wells, turning Flemington residents once again into sitting ducks. Most of them have no idea, and those who do can afford to do little beyond wait and hope.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to drink the water,” said Wood, a full-time student at Cape Fear Community College. “But everything we do is water. You make tea with it, you cook with it, you bathe your animals in it. I’m a full-time student. I don’t have a job. You don’t just go buy things like bottled water.”
CFPUA and Duke are finalizing details on a potential fix for the problem that would switch Flemington residents to a different water supply.
But that solution doesn’t address the ongoing groundwater contamination, a major factor in a lawsuit filed last month by the Southern Environmental Law Center against Duke on behalf of several environmental groups, including Cape Fear River Watch.

Double threats?

The suit alleges that Duke committed several violations under the federal Clean Water Act, all related to groundwater contamination and related pollution to nearby Sutton Lake, stemming from coal-ash ponds at the Sutton Steam Plant.
Conservationists have long opposed the ash ponds – large, in-ground basins where utility companies pump and store coal-ash slurry, a mixture of water and fly ash, a lightweight by-product of burning coal. Coal ash is loaded with toxic chemicals, including arsenic, magnesium and selenium, which can leach into groundwater and endanger nearby populations.
“There are two key issues. Both are huge,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “One is the actual, long-term, continued poisoning of Sutton Lake. The other is the significant risk of contamination to the Flemington drinking water.”

History of pollution

Flemington’s drinking water was first polluted in 1978, after contaminated groundwater migrated through the neighborhood from the 70-acre New Hanover County landfill. Residents had physical reactions to the toxic chemicals, including nausea, bacterial infections, skin rashes and diarrhea. The matter wound up in court after the federal Environmental Protection Agency sued the county, and while lawyers and county officials haggled over details, Flemington residents toted plastic containers to mobile tanks, driven in to supply the community with usable water.
“I was a little girl, probably 9 or 10 years old, when the landfills polluted the water. I remember there were hearings and meetings. It was a big to-do out here,” said Linda Malpass, who grew up in Flemington and still lives there in her childhood home. “They were bringing in Army tanks, and we would have to go over there with buckets and haul our water back to the house.”
In 1980, the New Hanover County Commissioners agreed to create a public water system for Flemington and to provide roughly 40 affected residents with 12,000 gallons of free water every two months, as long as they remained at their properties. That arrangement lasted until 2008, when the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority took over the county’s water and sewer system and began charging residents for their service.
Since then, CFPUA has conducted required testing on the Flemington drinking water wells, monitoring the supply for a litany of chemicals. According to recent data from the utility authority, the wells aren’t contaminated. Testing records dated Sept. 17 show that levels of arsenic, thallium and lead, among dozens of other pollutants, were essentially nonexistent, with levels too low to be detected.

Chemicals within bounds

But monitoring wells closer to the ash ponds have frequently returned test results showing levels of pollutants up to 25 times the legal limit for groundwater. From 2010 to 2012, concentrations of arsenic in three monitoring wells spiked above the legal limit eight times, peaking at 26.7 times higher than the state allows. The wells – numbered 2, 17 and 18 – are staggered, with the closest sitting within 250 feet of the ash ponds and the farthest about 375 feet away.
Records also show multiple “exceedances,” or high levels, of boron, iron, lead, manganese and thallium, but because the wells in question are within a certain distance of the ponds, the pollution is permissible. Under state rules, wastewater ponds like the ones maintained by Progress Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Carolinas are granted what’s known as a “compliance boundary” – an imaginary line 500 feet from the edge of the ash basin, inside of which groundwater contamination isn’t punishable.
“There are hundreds of cases where test results have exceeded what the state has said is safe for groundwater,” said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “But those exceedances haven’t crossed the compliance boundary, so nothing is done. There is absolutely no doubt or no denying that the groundwater around these coal-ash ponds is highly contaminated.”

Creeping threat

That contaminated water is migrating slowly toward the Flemington wells, moving through the sandy, porous soil at a rate of between 109 and 339 feet per year, according to groundwater assessments prepared by Progress and submitted to the state Division of Environment and Natural Resources.
In 1994, the groundwater section of the state Division of Environmental Management concurred with that assessment, noting that the groundwater flow at the Sutton site is “substantially influenced by the pumping activities of … the Flemington wells” and that “these pumping activities may result in a groundwater flow pattern that moves from the lake and ash ponds toward the well field.”
“That water is moving in that direction,” Burdette said. “What you do know is that it’s not a question of if those wells are going to come into contact with polluted water. It’s a question of when.”
In its own groundwater monitoring studies, Duke has acknowledged the migration of boron contamination, typically seen as an “indicator” pollutant that can precede the arrival of other contaminants.
“We do have an indicator that boron is moving in that direction,” said Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke. “That’s why it’s important for us to be conservative and proactive.”

A safe solution?

Since June, Duke and CFPUA have been collaborating on a solution for the Flemington problem. Officials on Thursday told the StarNews that they’d reached an agreement to extend a pipe from the Sweeney Treatment Plant to the neighborhood, hooking residents there into the same system that supplies drinking water to more than 131,000 residents in and around the city of Wilmington. The project – contingent on the approval of the CFPUA board, which will address the matter at its meeting Wednesday – is estimated to take slightly more than two years, including design and construction phases.
To monitor the contamination in the short term, Duke and CFPUA agreed to drill two additional monitoring wells between the ash ponds and the drinking water wells to keep an eye on the migrating pollutants. Construction on those wells is expected to begin within the next two months.
Funding for the project totals approximately $2.25 million. Duke agreed to pay up to $1.5 million in initial costs, and to provide 50 percent of an additional $750,000. Duke will also split the estimated $24,000 cost for the two monitoring wells. That leaves CFPUA with a $472,000 tab, including an $85,000 fee for the 12-inch pipe and $12,000 for the two monitoring wells. All of that money will be allocated from existing funds in the water emergency repair and water developer agreement projects, and will cost ratepayers nothing.
“Nothing is going to change for those residents,” said Jim Flechtner, CFPUA’s chief operations officer. “Their water is clean now, and we’ll make sure it stays clean for the future.”
The proposal is good news for Flemington residents, Burdette said, but doesn’t address the lawsuit’s allegations regarding ongoing contamination of groundwater supplies stemming from the ash ponds.
“That’s great news, and it’s great that Duke is paying for it because it means they recognize that they are responsible for it,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the need to remove the source of that contamination, which is the coal-ash ponds. I still feel just as strongly that that needs to happen as I did before, I just think that now we’re doing the right thing for the residents of Flemington.”
Duke is planning to decommission the ash ponds as part of the process of converting the site to a natural-gas powered plant, Culbert said.
“There’s a scientific process that we have to follow,” she said. “A lot of it depends on the water table and how the hydrology flows underneath. We will make these decisions based not on emotion, not on perception, but on very sound science.”
But the current fix may be a cut-and-dried solution for at least some Flemington residents, including Malpass. All she’d wanted was the knowledge that her drinking water would stay safe – a guarantee that she could remain in her childhood home.
“I was raised up here, and this is home to me,” she said. “I’d rather stay, any way possible.”

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