Coal Ash, Contaminated Wells and Providing a Safe Drinking Water Supply

May 31, 2016. The previous post  discussed legislative efforts to resolve the separation of powers conflict still hovering over implementation of the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. The same piece of legislation, Senate Bill 71,  also attempts to fix other problems that have developed around coal ash cleanup efforts. One of the most significant changes in Senate Bill 71 responds to concerns about contaminated drinking water wells near coal ash ponds.  The final version of Senate Bill 71 approved today by both the House and Senate gives more well owners the certainty of an alternative water supply.  A comparison of Senate Bill 71 to the original Coal Ash Management Act below.

2014 Coal Ash Management Act:

Guaranteed an alternative water supply only to well owners located within 1/2 mile and down-gradient of the coal ash impoundment.  Well testing and groundwater assessment done around the impoundments since 2014  have detected high levels of one or more contaminants associated with coal ash, including hexavalent chromium, in wells located up-gradient or side-gradient of the impoundments. Although groundwater usually follows surface topography, the  underlying geology and human activity can alter the direction of  flow. The alternative water supply provision in the Coal Ash Management Act did not apply to those wells.

♦   The requirement for Duke Energy to provide an alternative water supply was contingent on well sampling showing a contaminant associated with coal ash above the level allowed under state groundwater standards.  The  lack  of a state groundwater standard for some contaminants  (including venadium and hexavalent chromium) led to confusion, conflicting advice to well owners,  and lack of clarity on the standard DEQ would use to require Duke Energy to provide an alternative water source.  For background on the controversy over the groundwater standards see an earlier post here . Many well owners have received bottled water for months because of documented well contamination, but remain uncertain whether DEQ will require Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative water supply.

♦  The provision on alternate water supply enacted in 2014, G.S. 130A-309.209(c), did not specifically require a permanent solution — such as connection to a public water system — rather than bottled water.

♦ Under the 2014 law, owners of contaminated wells located up-gradient and side-gradient of a coal ash impoundment might receive alternate supplies under the state’s groundwater corrective action rules,.  The rules (referenced in the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act) apply to all groundwater contamination incidents and require a company responsible for groundwater contamination to address health risks created by the contamination.  The  corrective action rules,  however, only apply to a person/company shown to be 1. responsible for contamination that 2. exceeds state groundwater standards. Two years after enactment of the Coal Ash Management Act,  controversy surrounds the standards for some contaminants and groundwater studies have not yet been sufficient to determine whether the coal ash ponds  caused contamination found  in up-gradient and side-gradient wells.

Senate Bill 71:

♦ Requires Duke Energy to provide an alternative water supply to the owner of every well located within 1/2 mile of the compliance boundary surrounding a coal ash pond. (The compliance boundary — either 250 feet or 500 feet from the edge of the impoundment depending on its age — is the point at which exceedance of a state  groundwater standard would be a violation.)

♦  For wells within 1/2 mile of the compliance boundary around an ash pond, alternative water supply would be required without regard to the location of the well in relation to the impoundment (down-gradient, up-gradient or side-gradient) or demonstration of a groundwater standard violation.

♦ The bill also requires Duke Energy to provide alternative water supply to well owners located outside the 1/2 mile perimeter, but located in an area at risk  of contamination because of the projected migration of groundwater contamination.

♦ The bill expressly requires Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative water supply source and creates a preference for connection to a public water system.  The bill allows  installation of a filtration system instead if extension of a water line would be cost-prohibitive. The State Water Infrastructure Authority would review Duke Energy’s alternative water supply plan for each impoundment site and make the final decision on the type of permanent water supply.

Several things are notable about the Senate Bill 71 approach.   First, the bill  provides  certainty to well owners  that would not have been possible as clearly or as quickly any other way.  But the bill is also a reminder that property owners affected by groundwater contamination from other sources have a longer, more difficult and less certain road to a safe drinking water supply.