Three years after concerns emerged over coal ash seeping into groundwater, neighbors of 14 Duke Energy coal plants in North Carolina finally have new, permanent water supplies.
The state Department of Environmental Quality said Friday that new water lines or water filters have been installed at all eligible households near Duke coal ash sites, including the Allen plant in Belmont, Marshall on Lake Norman and the Buck plant in Salisbury.
The work was required under a 2016 state law, which also set an Oct. 15, 2018 deadline.
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said 603 households have been connected to public water supplies and another 155 got new water filtration systems. Duke estimates the work will cost it about $31 million.
Many residents have been relying on bottled water for the past few years amid concerns over the safety of their drinking water. In mid-2015, the state told some residents near coal ash sites to stop drinking their water, then rescinded those "do not drink" orders in early 2016. But Duke has continued to supply water.
Amy Brown lives near the Allen plant in Belmont, in Gaston County. She got her new city water line in April.
"I will be very happy if I never see water stacked up in my house ever again. Very very glad that that part of the nightmare is over," Brown said Friday.
Coal ash is the material left after burning coal and contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and vanadium.
While tests found some water supplies were tainted, Duke says coal ash isn't the cause. The company points to studies that show the contaminants in coal ash are found naturally in North Carolina.
Duke is in the midst of digging up coal ash at about half its North Carolina plants and all of its South Carolina plants before moving the material to new lined landfills so it doesn't leak into groundwater. But it plans to leave coal ash in place at the rest of its North Carolina plants, adding waterproof covers.
The Allen plant is one of those.
"The problem with that is the neighbors know so much more now. And it's just like we tell our children, once you know better, it is your job to do better," Brown said.
She said neighbors are continuing to push for the removal of coal ash near their homes.
Duke spokeswoman Sheehan said the company disagrees with the neighbors, but: "Installing new water supplies gives them peace of mind and allows the company to continue to pursue a range of basin closure options that are based on science and engineering and customized to the needs of each site."
Gov. Roy Cooper took note of the milestone in a press release Friday.
"For the families who have been living on bottled water, this solution is critical and necessary. Every family deserves to have confidence in their drinking water and we must continue to protect this vital resource,” he said.
State environmental secretary Michael Regan acknowledged there's more work to do.
“DEQ will continue its work to erase the impacts of coal ash across North Carolina,” he said.