Science & Environment
3:45 pm
Fri October 25, 2013

Contaminated Asheville Well Fuels Coal Ash Debate

Satellite view of the Asheville Plant and the French Broad River (left).
Credit Google Earth

State water regulators have identified a well near Asheville with contaminated drinking water and have indicated it likely comes from waste leaking from a Duke Energy coal plant. At the same time, the state and environmental organizations are caught up in a lawsuit with Duke over exactly this issue—coal plants contaminating groundwater and rivers, including in the Asheville and Charlotte regions. 

WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt to unpack what the one contaminated well signifies for Duke, the state, environmentalists, and water drinkers around North Carolina.

KNIESTEDT: Ben, first, explain what happened at the well.

BRADFORD: The state found high levels of two metals, iron and manganese, in a family’s private well. To give you a sense, that exceeds the federal standard for manganese by a factor of about 12 and the standard for iron by about seven. In one sense this isn’t a big deal. Iron and manganese aren’t particularly toxic; it may change the color and flavor of the water more than anything. And, it’s one home. No one’s been found to be at fault, and some of these metals do occur naturally in the rock. But, the state is making Duke supply drinking water to the family and do further tests.

KNIESTEDT: Okay, so why do we care down here in Charlotte if one home a couple hours away has funny-looking water?

BRADFORD: Duke has 14 coal plants across the state, and each one has ponds that store the left over ash from burning coal. A small amount of the ashy water can seep into the groundwater. And then that groundwater flows into nearby rivers, where we get our drinking water. This well sits in-between Duke’s Asheville power plant and the French Broad River, and it’s the first time a well has been found with this contamination. Prior to this, the state’s had evidence of contamination in groundwater, but not drinking water.

KNIESTEDT: And the state is suing Duke for the seepages from the 14 coal plants.

BRADFORD: That’s right, including the Riverbend plant off of Mountain Island Lake.  Environmental groups have been critical, both of the state being slow to sue and for quickly proposing what they see as a soft a settlement—it mostly requires further testing from the company and a token fine. The French Broad Riverkeeper, Hartwell Carson, explains the problem he sees with that.

CARSON:  It’d be great, instead of continuing to dig up contamination and human health impacts, if we could just get to addressing the source of the pollution, which we all know is the coal ash lagoons. And, it’s honestly not that complicated to fix the problem.

BRADFORD: State regulators and Duke both say the general drinking water is fine, by the way, because the toxins are diluted by the river, and the water is filtered. And, there are certain flows from the coal ash ponds into the river that are state approved and regulated.

KNIESTEDT: So what does Duke have to say about the well?

BRADFORD: Duke says it’s proof that the state isn’t going easy on them. Here’s spokeswoman Erin Culbert:

CULBERT: Some of the special interest groups had indicated a concern that the state was really putting some things on hold while the litigation was ongoing, and we can see here that that’s clearly not the case.

BRADFORD: At the same time, the state’s only making Duke do further testing on the well—it’s the same testing the company’s required to do in the settlement—just a bit expedited.

KNIESTEDT: Okay, thanks, Ben.

BRADFORD: Thank you.