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NC officials send 'do not drink' letters to folks near coal ash basins, then reverse

Lake Julian and Duke Energy's plant in Asheville, N.C. in spring of 2016. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Within days, the state is expected to give final classifications for how Duke Energy must clean up its coal ash across North Carolina.

For more than a year, the state has been studying if Duke's coal ash has affected people's drinking water.

"Sometimes it's aggravating. I run to the sink, and go 'Woah, wait a minute here, I can't use this,'" said Arden resident Tom Rice about his water. He survived stomach cancer.

Up the river from the Rice's, Jeri Cruz-Segarra lost two dogs and two neighbors to cancer. Both families were told by the state to not drink their water. They believe coal ash from Duke contaminated it.

Duke is rushing to remove coal ash from the Asheville power plant by 2020. They're taking some of it to the Cliffside plant in Cleveland County. They're putting the ash there in a lined landfill.

The EPA calls coal ash industrial waste. Physicians for Social Responsibility say it can contain toxins like arsenic, lead and chromium.

"You're not going to eat spoonfuls of coal ash, but the substance itself is very similar to soil," said Duke Spokesperson Danielle Peoples.

Last year in federal court, Duke admitted coal ash from the Asheville plant contaminated groundwater, but Duke says it hasn't affected people's drinking water.

"Our facilities are not impacting groundwater, and they're not impacting our neighbor's private wells," said Peoples.

Clean Water for North Carolina's Katie Hicks finds that hard to believe.

"It's not an all or nothing picture. To say that it is, just doesn't make sense," said Hicks.

The state continues to investigate why water near coal ash ponds statewide is contaminated. Fifteen wells in Arden were tested and eight revealed contaminants.

"That's just obscene. I mean, that is negligent. And the Rices? I feel awful for them," said Cruz-Segarra.

At first, the state told the Rice's their water was safe, but in November, they got a "do not drink" letter, and then in March the state told them they could drink their water. Now they're just confused and don't know if their water is safe.

"No, I couldn't say. I couldn't say, and you don't know if they're telling you the truth, or not, really don't," said Leona Rice, Tom's wife.

The Department of Health and Human Services took back "do not drink" recommendations for 234 other homes in North Carolina. DHHS says their water is fine under federal standards, which is true because there are no federal standards for what's in it.

"It's scary for people," said Hicks.

Most of the 235 wells showed a known carcinogen called hexavalent chromium. You may know that chemical best because of Erin Brockovich. The Rice's well tested at twice the state standard. DHHS used that standard when they told them not to drink their water.

"We always reserve the right as we look around, see what our peers are doing, learn more, to change our mind, and that's not really that unusual in public health," said the state's Health Director Dr. Randall Williams.

Williams says the state changed its mind, because every other state, but one, follows the federal standards. He says the do not drink letters "Had an unintended consequence of creating alarm."

"We think the water is safe to drink with a very limited risk. Again, we're out here in the sun today, and the sun is genotoxin mutagen. We recognize people have risk," said Dr. Williams.

Duke praised the "do not drink" reversals. Williams denied Duke affected the decision.

"It does not seem that impartial. It seems like the state is looking for ways to backtrack and maybe is getting a lot of pressure from Duke Energy that they don't want to take responsibility," said Hicks.

The Rice's just want the peace of mind for which they moved to Arden. Their view? Blocked by the power plant

"It's pretty frustrating," said Leona Rice.

Their water?

"I don't know. I can't say," she said. "I wouldn't drink it," said Hicks.

State legislators are considering a bill that would ban state agencies and local health departments from issuing health advisories unless there is a federal standard. Environmental activists call the proposal a contamination cover up bill.

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