- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina officials are warning more residents living near Duke Energy’s coal ash pits that it’s not safe to drink or cook with their well water after tests showed contamination levels that is raising health concerns.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Tuesday that 152 wells tested near Duke’s dumps failed to meet state groundwater standards. That represents more than 93 percent of the 163 wells for which tests have been completed so far.

Many of the tests results show high levels of toxic heavy metals such as lead, vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

Last month, the state said tests of 87 private wells near Duke’s plants failed to meet state standards. A state law passed after last year’s spill into the Dan River required testing of all drinking wells within 1,000 feet of Duke’s 32 coal ash dumps.

The ash is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains numerous potentially harmful chemicals, including those now showing up in the wells of Duke’s neighbors.

So far, Duke is providing bottled water to “about half a dozen” of the residents, but the company indicated that number is expected to rise. The company maintains the groundwater contamination is all naturally occurring.

“We do not believe our ash basins are responsible for the water quality concerns, but we want them to have peace of mind while more study is done,” said Paige Sheehan, a Duke spokeswoman.

The nation’s largest electricity company, Duke stores more than 150 million tons of coal ash in 32 dumps at 14 power plants in North Carolina.

In February, federal prosecutors charged Duke with nine criminal counts over years of illegal pollution leaking from ash dumps at five of the plants. The company has said it intends to plead guilty to the charges next week as part of an agreement requiring it to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.

A separate state law passed in the wake of the Dan River spill requires the company to move or cap all of its dumps by 2029.

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