Officials say local water is safe despite coal ash concerns

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

While the state investigates claims Duke Energy has illegally been pumping a toxic sludge known as coal ash into the Cape Fear River near Moncure, some locals have a more pressing concern: Is tap water safe?

All public drinking water for Sanford, Broadway, Lillington, Dunn, Fayetteville and other nearby cities is taken from the Cape Fear, downstream from Duke's coal ash ponds in Moncure. Those ponds are now being looked into after other coal ash ponds belonging to the company breached in the northern part of the state in early February, leading to the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

In Harnett County, an estimated 98 percent of residents use public water. In Lee County, most city residents have public water while most county residents use wells.

Officials in both counties, however, don't appear to be concerned and said they haven't been paying much, if any, attention to the Moncure situation.

Vic Czar, head of the City of Sanford's public works department, said he hadn't heard of the allegations swirling around the Moncure plant. Allan Obriant, superintendent of the Harnett County water treatment plant, said he only learned about it Monday after seeing a news story.

But neither had seen anything in water quality readings that would be cause for concern, they said Tuesday.

"We test our raw water regularly, and we haven't noticed any change in raw water quality," Czar said. "So the rest of that stuff, I'm not sure how much credence to put in any of it."

Obriant said he thinks the biggest concerns would be heavy metals in the water, but that "I don't really know what's in that coal ash, to be honest with you."

Several environmental groups, in addition to calling attention to the coal ash being pumped into a stream that feeds the Cape Fear — which Duke Energy has acknowledged but claims is legal — also questioned the stability of the dams holding the coal ash ponds themselves together.

Obriant said he believes that if a dam breach were to occur, the Harnett County plant would be able to treat any contaminated water. Czar said the same is true of the Sanford plant.

Czar said while he wasn't familiar with the Moncure situation, he has been following Duke Energy's earlier coal ash spill. And the cities which have seen the toxic water pouring into their treatment plants, he said, have been able to handle it so far.

The Harnett County water treatment plant also supplies water to parts of Moore and Johnston counties, and the Sanford plant supplies some parts of Chatham County. Most of Chatham County's public water, however, is supplied by the Haw River — which is upstream of the Moncure pumps and hasn't been affected by Duke Energy's other coal ash spill earlier this month. A federal grand jury began investigating that first spill on Tuesday.