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Data firm calls out Duke Energy's 'bad science' in coal ash management

Anonprofit data analysis firm has called out Duke Energy Corp. for using "bad science" anda relationship with state leaders to "stack the deck" in its favorwhen it comes to managing its coal ash ponds.

"Bypatiently cultivating friends in high places, Duke Energy has long avoidedbeing held accountable for careless management of its coal ash waste," thefirm, Insightus, states in its April 7 report, "Duke Energy's PoisonedPower."

"Duke Energy could have a lot to gain by painting themost rosy picture possible to suggest its coal ash storage sites pose noimminent threat to human health and safety. And state regulators' judgments maybe equally questionable, because from Gov. [Pat] McCrory on down to the Secretaryof Environment, Duke Energy has packed North Carolina's government with pastenergy company executives and other 'business-friendly' regulators,"William Busa, the study's lead author and president of the firm, said in anApril 12 news release.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality,using information provided by Duke Energy, released draft proposed classifications for all coal ashimpoundments at the end of 2015, finding that at least a dozen basins are atintermediate risk while several are at low risk.

Insightus decided to conduct its own review of one of DukeEnergy's 14 coal ash site assessments — Allen Steam Station in Gaston County, N.C., where basinshave been classified as low to intermediate risk based on what the DEQ said wasincomplete information provided by the utility.

"Our investigation uncovered evidence … of classicscientific errors like cherry-picking (ignoring data which tends to contradicta desired conclusion), downplaying inconvenient conclusions, assertionsunsupported by data, and questionable data analysis methods, all of which —perhaps not surprisingly — have the net effect of de-emphasizing Duke Energy'sresponsibility for toxic groundwater contamination surrounding its coal ashdumps," the authors of the Insightus report wrote.

Safe to drink?

The report notes that the basins at the Allen Steam Stationhold 13 million to 16 million tons of coal ash "in mostly unlined dumps"that contain significant amounts of arsenic, lead and mercury.

In April 2015, state environmental officials to residents nearseveral coal plants, including Allen, warning them of the presence of metals intheir drinking wells that exceed state standards. Updated test resultsreleased in May 2015showed that contaminants in approximately 93% of drinking wells tested nearcoal ash ponds exceeded state standards.

Then, in March, the North Carolina Department of Health andHuman Services reversed course and informed hundreds of residents that livenear coal ash sites that their water is now safe to drink based on an extensive study andindependent assessments. The Department of Health and Human Services said inletters to residents it has "now concluded the water out of your well isas safe as the majority of public water systems in the country."

Duke Energy, which provided bottled water to affectedresidents, said that "evidence from numerous studies has shown that ouroperations are not impacting neighbors' private wells."

"We will leave water standards to the appropriate stateand federal professionals; however, plant neighbors' well water is consistentwith other well water across the state and does not exhibit indications of coalash impacts," Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email.

The Insightus report's authors, who said they were assistedby hydrogeologists, contend that their investigation shows groundwater isflowing in "several different directions away from Duke's ash ponds"and toward some residential water wells. The authors said this "directlycontradicts" Duke Energy's claim that 'groundwater … flows … away from thedirection of the nearest public or private water supply wells" at Allen.

Insightus said its data indicates residential wells in theSouth Point neighborhood west of the Allen ash ponds "are widelycontaminated" with chromium-6, a known carcinogen, and vanadium, asuspected carcinogen.

Standing by their plan

DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher said the agency "identified,sampled and analyzed wells neighboring coal ash facilities as part of thecoal ash law."

"DEQ continues to review information from Duke Energythat will help us determine whether or not coal ash ponds are impacting wells.We hope to make that determination by mid-summer as multiple rounds of testingand data analysis are completed," Rusher said in an email, noting that theDEQ completed a "robust public participation process" in March with ameeting "held in every county where a coal ash facility is located."

Rusher did not immediately respond to claims that the DEQ'sclassifications and the timeline for coal ash pond closures is too lenient andoverly accommodating to Duke Energy.

"This report is another attempt at political advocacywrapped around a fundamentally flawed analysis," Duke Energy's Brookssaid. "The findings that Duke Energy submitted to the state are solidlybased in science and engineering, prepared and reviewed by some of the nation'sleading experts on groundwater. We stand by our findings and remain committedto closing ash basins in ways that protect groundwater, the environment and thepublic."

Insightus, a North Carolina non-profit corporation organizedin October 2015, describes itself as a group of "statisticians,scientists, and concerned citizens" that use data science "to promotea just, civil, democratic and sustainable world." The firm's other studiesinclude voting and polling issues in North Carolina.