After Duke guilty verdict, fears and questions linger about coal ash

by David Zucchino


Duke Energy may have been hauled into federal court and smacked with a $102-million penalty for polluting North Carolina rivers with potentially toxic coal ash, but that didn’t do much for the tainted well water at Barbara Morales’ house.

Morales, 67, lives on fixed income in Belmont, just west of Charlotte. From her home, she can see Duke Energy’s Allen electric station on the Catawba River. Her well is a few hundred feet from two coal ash basins there.

Morales is one of at least 123 North Carolina residents who have received letters from state health and environmental officials warning them that their well water is contaminated and unsafe for drinking or cooking.

Morales said she hasn’t used her water since testing by an environmental group a year ago found elevated levels of dangerous compounds. Last week, Duke began delivering bottled water to her home – a gallon a day for each of the three people living there.

But neither the bottled water nor Duke’s guilty plea Thursday to polluting four rivers, including the Catawba, gives Morales much hope that her well will be restored.

“Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water,” she said. “They need to take responsibility.”

The predicament for Morales and others living near Duke’s 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina is just one measure of the potential threat posed by 108 million tons of coal ash stored in the state in leaky pits, also called ponds, basins or lagoons.

Duke pleaded guilty Thursday to nine misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act, but environmentalists say the conviction does not require the utility to clean up coal ash ponds that still threaten waterways, wetlands and groundwater.

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