North Carolina residents near coal ash plants told not to drink water

SALISBURY, N.C. -- Dozens of North Carolina residents protested Thursday outside the Duke Energy stockholders meeting in Charlotte to express anger at the utility following concerns with their wall water. The state recently told the residents their well water is unsafe to drink but Duke Energy says it's not responsible.

The issue dates back to February 2014, when a closed Duke Energy plant caused a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River. Ever since, North Carolina's Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) has been testing wells within 1,000 feet of coal ash ponds. The agency says 152 wells tested positive for toxins above state health department standards.

Deborah Graham CBS News

Deborah Graham can see Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station Plant from her house. The utility sent inspectors in May 2014 to test her well water. She says they told her they didn't find anything wrong with her water.

But she began using bottled water last month when DENR told the Grahams to stop drinking or cooking with their wall water because its testing of the water showed high levels of vanadium -- a heavy metal found in coal ash that may cause cancer.

"Have I slowly been poisoning myself?" wondered Graham after receiving the news.

But in a letter to residents Duke Energy said: "We have no indication that (our) plant operations have influenced (your) well water."

In a statement to CBS News, the utility said elements such as vanadium are common in North Carolina wells and typically caused by rocks and soil in the area.

North Carolina Department of Energy and Natural Resources found at least 152 wells did not meet state standards CBS News

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has sued Duke Energy to force the cleanup of the utility's 32 coal ash ponds.

"The coal ash contains these metals at concentrations that are hundreds of thousands to millions of times higher than the concentrations in the original coal and they're dumped in enormous quantities," said John Suttles, an attorney with the SELC.

If DENR can prove the contamination came from coal ash, it says it will require the utility to provide a permanent, alternate water supply.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.