Radioactivity found in groundwater near Asheville's Lake Julian plant

Alarmingly high levels of radioactivity have been found in the groundwater at Duke Energy Facilities, and Asheville's Lake Julian plant is listed as the worst. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Alarmingly high levels of radioactivity have been found in the groundwater at Duke Energy facilities, and Asheville's Lake Julian plant is listed as the worst.

That information was compiled by the environmental group Earthjustice, based on Duke's monitoring for the EPA. It said recently released data shows levels of radium in the groundwater are 38 times higher than what the EPA considers safe for drinking water.

Duke disputed the method by which the information gathered was interpreted.

Coal ash removal from the Lake Julian storage ponds was considered by many the "gold standard" for safe removal.

Asheville Regional Airport needed more runway, and Duke Energy needed to get rid of the by-product of burning coal.

A short trip down the road, and sealed in liners underground, coal ash became the perfect fit.

Environmentalists and Duke officials agree the Asheville situation was advantageous.

"The Asheville plant is a great example of how we're using science and engineering to develop customized closure plans that continue to protect the environment and people," said Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan.

"Some of the problems have been where do we put this, when they are ready to move it," French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said.

Carson said he is surprised the Lake Julian plant ranks the worst, but believes there are major issues remaining.

Even though the airport project is done, there is more coal ash being removed, some still leeching into the groundwater.

Carson said while no coal-produced toxin is healthy, some heavy metals are more acceptable than others, but that radioactive metals like radium are more likely to bioaccumulate in the human body.

Sheehan argued results of the Earthjustice report are skewed.

"The groundwater monitoring wells in this report are located immediately next to the ash basin or landfill, and do not reflect groundwater conditions farther away or off plant property where neighbors are located," Sheehan said.

"It's hard to believe, you know, it's that coal ash that's done all this," Buncombe County resident Tom Rice said.

Rice, who has lived in the shadow of the Lake Julian stacks for almost 10 years, said test results from his well have not been good, nor has Duke's promise of running water.

Right now, Rice receives one gallon plastic containers of drinking water supplied by Duke.

"I'm just waiting to see," Rice laughed. "That's all I can do, because I can't afford to run no water line. You can't get a lawyer, I ain't got the money, I can't fight that big outfit, so all I can do is just ask the Lord to help me."

Paige Sheehan said Duke Energy's work in areas near the Lake Julian plant is not over, including the monitoring of what she said is naturally occuring radium, based on local geology.

"That involves more testing, analyzing the data and identifying any corrective steps," Sheehan said.

Sheehan also said Duke Energy will look into Tom Rice's situation, regarding his request for installation of city water.

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