— Jun. 17, 2014 10:45 AM EDT
For more than 80 years, the Thomas family has lived on a farm that abuts three open-air pits containing 6.1 million tons of ash from the coal-fired boilers of Duke Energy's Buck Steam Station. Built in 1926, the hulking plant towers over the Yadkin River an hour's drive from the Charlotte headquarters of the nation's largest electricity company.
Since 2011, Duke and North Carolina environmental regulators have known that groundwater samples taken from monitoring wells near the Thomases' home and others in Dukeville contained substances — some that can be toxic — exceeding state standards.
The state could have required Duke to implement a cleanup plan to prevent spreading contamination. That never happened, state regulators said, because they weren't certain whether coal ash production was to blame or if the substances were naturally occurring.
Those living near the plant were never warned and continued using their well water for drinking, bathing and cooking. Now the Thomases and their neighbors wonder not only what's in their water, but whether it's harmed them or their children.
In the wake of a massive Feb. 2 coal ash spill at another Duke plant, state regulators, environmental activists and Duke officials have been testing the water supplies for some of the 150 homes in Dukeville.