Residents demand answers about water near coal ash ponds

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — Hundreds attended a public hearing Tuesday night and one by one, many shared their concerns regarding Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Station’s coal ash pond and its impact on their water and for some, possibly their health.

Debra Baker said her husband Jack Baker became very sick six years after moving to Belmont and near the coal plant.

He was eventually diagnosed with lung disease although he never smoked. He died eight years ago.

“I feel that it was definitely something that had to do with our water,” Baker told Channel 9.

A year ago, the state recommended residents near the coal ash ponds not drink their well water because of dangerous chemicals, including hexavalent chromium, which has been linked to cancer.

But that recommendation was recently lifted. Duke Energy, which will close all coal ash ponds in the state after a disastrous leak into the Dan River in 2014, insists whatever may be in the well water is not from its coal ash ponds.

Many at the meeting said they still won’t drink any well water because the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has not retested the water since the recommendation not to drink it was rescinded.

The purpose of the hearing was for state representatives to get feedback from neighbors on how the state should classify the risk of Allen Steam Station’s coal ash pond -- low, intermediate or high-risk. That will determine when ponds are closed permanently. Duke Energy had a spokesperson there to listen.

“We want to make sure we understand what neighbor’s questions and concerns are. And we also want to make sure we're designing closure solutions that will protect the community and protect the environment,” said Erin Culbert with Duke Energy.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality has proposed Allen Steam Station’s coal ash basins to be designated low to intermediate risk, which infuriates many people. Neighbors said they’re not only concerned with when the coal ash pond is closed, but how. Some told officials if the coal ash pond is just capped or covered, the groundwater will still be impacted for at least 100 years and lead to the same problems.

“Anything less than a complete cleanup of this toxic cancer-causing pits will be a disgrace from the governor and his administration,” said Amy Brown, a Belmont resident.

If you missed Tuesday’s meeting, you can still send the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality written comments until April 18. The department will issue final risk classifications by May 18.

If the Allen Steam Station’s coal ash pond is designated a high-risk site, it will have to be closed by the end of 2019. If it’s low-risk, it would have to be shut down by the end of 2029.