Jeri Cruz stands beside her deceased neighbor's well in Arden. The state has said not to drink the water due to contaminants. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Jeri Cruz says people and animals in her Buncombe County neighborhood are getting sick at such an alarming rate that she suspects a connection to contaminants found in their well water.

It took Jeri Cruz and her husband, Rick, five years to build their home in Arden, near Duke Energy’s Asheville Plant.

But after the couple began living in the home in February 2008, Cruz refused to drink the well water.

“As I would watch the news I would hear about problems with water for people who lived near the French Broad River, and so, although my backyard is the French Broad River, I will not drink the water,” she said.

Duke’s coal ash storage facility overlooks the river. While the company is in the process of moving that waste away from its unlined pond, concerns continue about the long-term effects of contaminants leaking into the soil and groundwater or running off into the surface water.

“I just wanted to be very cautious about what I put in my body, any toxins in my body,” Cruz said.

She already had other health problems, Cruz said, and didn’t want to “add insult to injury.”

Now she’s one of hundreds of residents who received state warnings not to drink from their wells. The state later reversed the recommendation for most of the affected wells, but nearly 100 continue to be labeled unsafe. Cruz’s well is one of those.

As for claims of illnesses, a state assessment didn’t find enough reason to suspect additional risk of cancer tied to the coal ash sites. But the state only looked at countywide cancer rates, not elevated rates in small clusters in certain neighborhoods.

Cruz said she remains worried because of health issues she’s observed in her community, a concern she and others have echoed at public hearings about coal ash removal across the state in recent weeks.

Like others, Cruz worries that coal ash sites could be driving sickness in her neighborhood. But a definitive answer about whether there’s a significant connection is hard to come by.

In the last eight or so years, three people who lived in one house down the street from Cruz,  have died of cancer, as have two dogs that lived in the home. Two dogs at Cruz’s own home have also died, and another woman in the rural, sparsely populated neighborhood has had breast cancer.

Meanwhile, Duke suggests nature, not coal ash, is the source of the substances found in well water.

As for residents, they remain worried.

Mandated testing

The Coal Ash Management Act, the state legislature’s response to a 2014 spill of coal ash into the Dan River, mandated the well tests that led to the “do not drink” orders.

When officials tested Cruz’s well they found sulfate levels above the state standard and high sodium levels.

The sodium makes the water unsafe to drink for people on no-sodium or low-sodium diets, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency standards. But her water met the standards of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The state tests cover dozens of potential contaminants, and in many cases officials feel they need to test the wells more than once. State officials are applying federal standards, along with three kinds of state standards, to various potential contaminants.

In addition to her own well’s test results, Cruz also worries about neighbors with even worse test results, especially those up-grade or up-stream from her property.

“If this sounds confusing, it is,” she said.

Company officials are providing residents whose wells showed elevated levels of various substances with bottled water, but have emphasized that they haven’t admitted responsibility for the substances found in the well water.

No clear standards

In connection with the Coal Ash Management Act, state health officials tested 360 wells. At first they declared 330 unsafe to drink, primarily because of levels of two substances: vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

But federal standards don’t exist for either substance.

More than 70 percent of North Carolina public drinking water systems that the state has sampled exceeded the standards the state used for hexavalent chromium and vanadium, Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder recently told legislators.

The same standards would have flagged tap water from public water utilities in Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Wilmington for one or both of the substances, according to his presentation.

After that presentation, state officials reversed course on 235 of the wells, specifically those that had elevated levels of only hexavalent chromium and/or vanadium, declaring them safe.

“The rationale was that the water is the same as the water tens of millions of Americans consume every day,” Reeder said in an interview.

Environmental activists, however, were outraged by the decision to change course on so many wells.

“How can political appointees toss out the health-protective screening levels for hexavalent chromium and vanadium in well water that were determined based on the latest science and health information by expert state toxicologists and epidemiologists?” said Clean Water for North Carolina’s Katie Hicks in a recent news release.

Another 95 wells, which show elevated levels of other substances, are still labeled unsafe.

Reeder said only those people whose wells exceeded federal standards should worry about their water.

“What I have always told people is, if your well water complies with standards of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, then there’s no reason not to use it,” he said.

That would include the vast majority of the 95 wells the state has currently labeled unsafe.

The various state standards being used generally involve substances federal standards don’t regulate or for which the state has applied a much lower thresholds for contamination than federal standards.

Online DEQ records from the current round of testing show 16 wells exceeding federal standards, for lead, copper or arsenic. None of those wells are near near Duke’s two Western North Carolina coal ash sites, in Asheville or at Cliffside in Rutherford County.

But that isn’t quite the same as a clean bill of health for area wells.

At least one earlier test, from 2013, did find a well near Asheville exceeding federal standards, for manganese and iron. State workers haven’t been able to get in touch with the well’s owner to include it in the current round of testing, according to a state Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman.

But even residents who don’t have wells that have exceeded federal contamination limits remain worried.

Fear and Uncertainty

Donna Turner’s well is just across from an ash pond at Duke’s Cliffside site.

She left the home for domestic reasons shortly before the Dan River spill brought increased scrutiny to ash sites. Once that situation was resolved, she said, she was too worried about water quality to return home.

She hasn’t been able to get her well tested, she said, because she’s not in a financial position to turn on the power to her vacant home. It fell through the cracks on the state’s mandated testing because her power was turned off at the time.

In the meantime, she’s unable to rent the property and having problems getting her disability payments approved because it shows up on the balance sheet as an asset.

“I planned on living and dying there, and handing it to my daughter,” Turner said, emotion clouding her voice.

At a public hearing in Spindale last month, she described serious health problems that she associates with the well water, including ailments affecting her teeth and skin. She thinks contaminants are in her soil as well as her well – “Nothing will grow,” she said.

Leona Rice, 80, moved into her home across the French Broad River from Duke’s Asheville site in 2008. She said she’s confused by the state’s various letters about her water, which have carried conflicting messages. According to state records online, a November test found her well water had enough hexavalent chromium to trigger a state warning. That’s one of the substances for which warnings were later rescinded.

“I like the well water, but it’s so confusing now that you don’t know whether to drink it or not,” she said.

Rice doesn’t definitively blame the water – which state tests also showed was more acidic than is recommended for tap water — for health problems she’s seen in her family, she said, but she can’t help but wonder.

Sometimes the water tastes murky, she said, and sometimes the water in the shower would burn her eye. The garden wouldn’t grow vegetables right, she said.

Rice was hospitalized twice in May 2014, and her husband had stomach cancer. Her son died in 2014 before being able to see a cancer specialist, she said.

“I just don’t know what to think,” she said.

Calling on the feds

On Friday, the state Division of Public Health endorsed a call for more extensive uniform, federal standards for safe drinking water, a move that underscores the confusion surrounding safe levels of various substances in water supplies.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials took the stand in a recent position paper.

“We hope the association’s policy will provide the impetus for adoption of uniform safe drinking water standards that can be applied in all states and territories,” said Danny Staley, Director of the Division of Public Health, in a news release.

“This decision by this national body reinforces the recent withdrawal of the ‘do not drink’ recommendations issued to a small set of well owners, and clearly demonstrates the need for consistent standards for all citizens.”

The ASTHO position paper also included the statement that “scientists need a better understanding of chemicals, their fate and transport, and how they can impact human health.”

Making connection to health

So far it remains unclear whether residents’ health woes are tied to substances in the water or to any other common environmental cause.

Those questions are a step removed from the question of whether the substances in the water came from Duke, some other man-made source or nature, a question that, itself, could have different answers at different coal-ash sites.

“It’s always unfortunate when someone is dealing with a health issue,” wrote Duke spokeswoman Catherine Butler in an email to CPP.

“While we can’t begin to understand all the personal and environmental issues in one’s life, we do work hard to ensure we operate within all the very strict permits that are designed to protect public health and the environment.

“Neighbors’ wells near Cliffside and Asheville do not show indications of coal-ash impacts, and the state’s background testing shows those same substances exist naturally in private wells across the state as well as municipal water supplies.”

There has been at least one organized look at the question so far, though.

The North Carolina Central Cancer Registry is the state office charged with investigating potential cancer clusters.

After the Dan River spill, the registry looked into the rates of stomach cancers and gastrointestinal tumors in 14 counties linked to coal ash sites.

On its website, the registry says this: “Real cancer clusters are extremely rare. There have been no proven cancer clusters in North Carolina, and only a few around the United States.”

On an age-adjusted basis, the researchers didn’t find any difference between the counties in question and the rest of the state, “so no further investigation is indicated,” said DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre in an email to CPP.

CPP reached out to several Independent experts about the epidemiological issues raised by the state’s approach. But each of these experts either chose not to respond or said they were unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Public policy

As officials hold public hearings on plans for dealing with the coal ash piles, Reeder said, conversation statewide has been dominated by questions about well water.

“It’s not so much people concerned about when we’re going to dig the ash up, it’s people concerned about what impacts have these coal ash ponds caused,” he said.

Reeder insists residents should be proud of the way the state has handled water concerns.

“We’ve done the exact opposite in North Carolina of what they did in Flint, Michigan,” he said.

Not everyone is so certain the state couldn’t improve on aspects of its work.

Once the situation has been properly assessed, Dr. Douglas Sheets of Rutherfordton said he’d like the North Carolina Public Health Commission, on which he sits, to get regular updates on the situation.

“We need to know how extensive is it, to what degree is it, (and) what are they going to do to ameliorate it?” he said.

“I delivered over 4,000 babies, last count, I have a vested interest in them growing up healthy.”

Ultimately, Sheets said, as a citizen, he’d like to see an engineering school find a way to turn coal ash from a byproduct into a resource that can be used for something, so that it won’t have to be stored anywhere.

The Rev. Karen Richardson Dunn of Rutherford County is putting together a petition for United Church of Christ pastors and congregants to sign, asking DEQ, Gov. Pat McCrory and Duke to better address the situation.

Dunn, an activist with Creation Care Alliance of Western N.C., the faith-based arm of Mountain True, attended one of the public meetings recently. She called the testimony from residents that she heard “very troubling.”

She said she thinks the public response has lagged because the affected residents are few, rural and often less than well-to-do.

“I don’t think if this was an affluent community, this would be happening,” she said.

Source of contaminants?

DEQ officials haven’t yet determined whether the substances showing up in people’s wells are naturally occurring or come from a man-made source, such as coal ash, Reeder said.

Officials are trying to figure out how far contamination from the coal ash has spread in the water table, both horizontally and vertically. Such a determination might come sometime in May, Reeder said.

“That is the highest priority of our groundwater staff that’s working on,” he said.

Residents whose wells are found to be contaminated will either get public water or be given bottled water for life, Reeder said.

He added that, in many cases, adding a filtration system to the property’s water successfully removes the contaminants.

“Nobody’s going to be left with a well they can’t use because of Duke,” Reeder said.

Patrick Hunter, and attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center is concerned about health impacts through contamination of private wells, he said, and is engaged in litigation, along with the DEQ, that seeks better control of coal ash contamination separate from the Coal Ash Management Act.

There are serious flaws with the computer models being used to determine which wells are affected, Hunter said.

“It’s premature to say that folks drinking wells are not being impacted when neither we, nor DEQ, nor Duke have the information to say that right now,” he said.

Duke, however, countered that data is drawn from actual sampling.

“The data … was collected through actual samples, not based solely on theoretic modeling,” Butler wrote.

“We stand by the science and facts, which include the most comprehensive studies around North Carolina ash basins.”

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