WMBF Investigates: Pee Dee town in midst of water contamination - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

WMBF Investigates: Pee Dee town in midst of water contamination debate

Hartsville resident Billy Smith and other locals' concerns center on what's been happening at power plants like Duke's Lake Robinson plant in Hartsville. Hartsville resident Billy Smith and other locals' concerns center on what's been happening at power plants like Duke's Lake Robinson plant in Hartsville.
Tests WMBF News obtained show heavy metals like arsenic, manganese, and barium are in groundwater near the ash basin. Tests WMBF News obtained show heavy metals like arsenic, manganese, and barium are in groundwater near the ash basin.
Some testing wells in and directly around the ash basin show ten and even 100 times what the government considers safe. Some testing wells in and directly around the ash basin show ten and even 100 times what the government considers safe.
When we Duke Energy chemist Frank Watkins about some of the recent ground water test results, he showed us just how concerned he is by chugging a large glass of that same water. When we Duke Energy chemist Frank Watkins about some of the recent ground water test results, he showed us just how concerned he is by chugging a large glass of that same water.
A few weeks ago it announced plans to move the Lake Robinson plant’s coal ash to a lined pit where it’s completely contained. A few weeks ago it announced plans to move the Lake Robinson plant’s coal ash to a lined pit where it’s completely contained.

DARLINGTON COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Arsenic, manganese, and barium are all things you definitely don't want in your drinking water. Duke Energy has since pleaded guilty to environmental crimes, but for too many families, the decision could be too little too late.

“If you don't have a well, you don't have any water pretty much,” explained Billy Smith.

In a part of Hartsville where county water isn't a guarantee, Smith and his family depend on their small well for everything.

“It's what we drink, take showers in, water the plants,” He explained.

Smith and other locals' concerns center on what's been happening at power plants like Duke's Lake Robinson plant in Hartsville.

Smith first became worried when a massive dyke holding toxic waste called coal ash at a Tennessee Power plant gave out and flooded a nearby town. That was back in 2008.

Then, just last year, another spill consumed the news. This one resulted in an ecological disaster. Tens of thousands of gallons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River in North Carolina.

The spill came from a Duke Energy plant much like the one in Smith's own town, leaving him with many questions.

“I don't think the truth is going to come out of something like that until a catastrophe does happen,” Smith explained.

Smith and dozens of others went to a meeting held this month by activists wanting Duke to take responsibility for these coal ash ponds and the threats they could pose to the health of the community.

Environmental lawyer Frank Holleman was at that meeting. His law firm, the Southern Environmental Law Center, has several pending civil lawsuits against Duke Energy in South Carolina.

Holleman believes homeowners need the facts about Duke and its coal ash waste before they can demand a solution.

He told them that until 2012, the Hartsville plant burned coal to produce electricity, but that process left behind millions of tons of coal ash.

Duke disposed of all that coal ash waste by dumping it into unlined ponds or ash basins on site.

“Coal ash has been around a long time, but it was sort of out of sight, out of mind,” Holleman explained.

That is, until recently, when studies like one performed for The Department of Health and Environmental Control found things many environmentalists feared. Tests WMBF News obtained show heavy metals like arsenic, manganese, and barium are in groundwater near the ash basin.

Some testing wells in and directly around the ash basin show ten and even 100 times what the government considers safe. 

DIG DEEPER: Read the complete 80-page report on contaminated water found around the ash basin (warning: Very large PDF file)

“Arsenic is a very dangerous substance,” explained Holleman. “It's been used in poisons and it is a poison.”

Frank Watkins worked as a chemist at the Lake Robinson plant for more than 40 years. He tested ash basins and has no doubt Duke Energy has been on top of any contamination issues with those dump sites.

“We found heavy metals to a certain extent, but radioactive-wise, no problem at all,” Watkins explained.

He now lives just down the road from the plant. When we told him about some of the recent ground water test results, he showed us just how concerned he is by chugging a large glass of that same water.

“To me, it wouldn't bother me, because it would take a lifetime of drinking that water before it would possibly show any results on you,” he said.

“We did get an elevated reading, but it was only at the wells that were very shallow, and they're either located in the ash basin itself or on the very perimeter of it,” explained Duke Energy spokesperson Charles Ellison. “So the important thing to remember here is that the groundwater is perfectly safe, Lake Robinson's perfectly safe.”

Since then, Duke has announced it's willing to fix the problem. A few weeks ago, it announced plans to move the Lake Robinson plant's coal ash to a lined pit where it's completely contained.

Duke insists it's the best long-term solution because of the barriers ar jznuf ound the ash.

Just last week, things changed for Duke again. The company pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in North Carolina. The company will now pay more than $100 million in fines and proper disposal of all that coal ash.

Back in Hartsville, Billy Smith doesn't know what to do.

“It's terrifying, I mean, I don't know what else to do,” He said. “I can't just pick up and move tomorrow or something, I can't bring water in by truckload.”

DHEC hasn't found arsenic in any residential wells, but Smith admits he's not sure he would even want to have his own well tested.

“If I get DHEC to test it and something is wrong with it, then it's gonna be made official really,” Smith explained. “I mean, what if they make me close my well? What if I want to sell my house?”

He also worries about the impact whatever might be in the water could have on his three kids' existing health problems. One son suffers from seizures and another has continuing ear problems.

“I don't know if that has to do with here, or the water, I mean, there could be 101 different factors,” Smith said. “If there are heavy metals and stuff in our wells, I'm sure that can't help.”

Smith now fears Duke's hesitation to seal its coal ash from future contamination could seal the fates of hundreds living near its plants.

He can only hope the same movement that has leveled fines and ultimatums on Duke Energy in North Carolina will move South before it's too late.

As of right now, Duke Energy says it has only submitted permits to DHEC for that new, lined, pit.

It hopes to release its exact plans for removing the coal ash sometime this fall.

Meanwhile attorney Frank Holleman says he still has ten civil cases against Duke Energy and the ruling in North Carolina doesn't change that.

Copyright 2015 WMBF News. All rights reserved.

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