WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — From his modest home near the Cape Fear River, Sam Malpass can glimpse the tall stacks of Duke Energy's Sutton Steam Electric Plant, a looming reminder of the environmental dangers threatening his family.
Contaminated groundwater from a pair of huge Sutton coal-ash dumps is headed toward the wells that provide drinking water for Flemington, a largely working class community a half mile from the entrance to Duke's plant. Duke says the wells are safe. But the threat is so serious that the company has agreed to pay to extend pipes to connect residents to a public water system.
Despite the danger, the government regulators responsible for protecting the state's natural resources have not taken action to force Duke to stop the spread of the underground plume of pollution encroaching closer to their homes each year.
According to a recent study, toxic chemicals leaking from Duke's coal-ash dumps at Sutton have triggered genetic mutations in fish living in nearby Sutton Lake. Duke disputes that conclusion.
Meanwhile, 3 ½ years ago, part of a big dike at Sutton collapsed, spilling toxic ash down the embankment.
"If you want to know what it's like living near a coal ash pond, this is it," said Malpass, 67, a retired carpenter and Vietnam veteran. "We're afraid to drink the water because we don't know what's in it. We can't eat the fish because we don't know if it's safe anymore. It's changed our lives out here."
In the wake of Duke Energy's massive coal ash spill in Eden, people in the tight-knit Flemington community are paying close attention to the environmental disaster unfolding 200 miles to the northwest along the Dan River.
A generation of families raised their children in Flemington, an area outside Wilmington of mostly one-story homes that hug the narrow pine-shaded roads sprinkled with sand.
Many of the 400 people who live here say they'd like to stay. But it's getting harder — especially when they live in the shadow of Duke's coal-ash dumps.
Like many in this community, Kenneth Sandlin worries about a coal-ash accident that could spill tons of toxic waste into Sutton Lake. He worries what happened in Eden could happen here, too.
"I don't know how much more we can take," said Sandlin, who has lived in Flemington since 1957. "If it could happen there, it could happen here."
On Feb. 2, a pipe running under a coal ash pond at Duke's Dan River Steam Station collapsed, coating the bottom of the river with toxic ash up to 70 miles downstream.
Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the disaster, issuing at least 22 subpoenas to Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources demanding documents and ordering 19 agency employees to testify before a grand jury.
The first batch of subpoenas were issued Feb. 10, the day after a story by The Associated Press raised questions about a proposed deal between Duke and state regulators that would have fined the nation's largest electricity provider $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater contamination leeching from facilities near Asheville and Charlotte. A settlement for the contamination at Sutton, which Duke acquired during its 2012 mega-merger with Progress Energy, was under negotiation at the time of the Dan River spill.
The deal came about after the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing a coalition of citizens groups, tried to use the U.S. Clean Water Act to sue Duke in federal court last year over pollution at Sutton and other sites. The state agency intervened three times to use its authority to issue violations and take the case to state court, where the agency quickly negotiated a settlement that included no requirement that Duke actually clean up its pollution.
The SELC and citizens groups opposed the deal, saying it shielded Duke, a $50 billion company, from far harsher penalties it might have faced in federal court. The state put its settlement with Duke on hold two weeks ago, the day after the AP reported on it.
North Carolina has 31 ash dumps at 14 coal-fired power plants spread across the state — all near public waterways. The environmental groups want Duke to remove its coal ash from the leaking, unlined pits adjacent to rivers and lakes and move it to sealed landfills licensed to handle toxic waste.
For the groups, forcing Duke to clean up the coal-ash dumps on Sutton Lake is a top priority. The dangerous chemicals leeching from Duke's dumps at Sutton has been moving closer to the homes and wells at a rate of as much as 340 feet per year.
Regulators have known about problems with Sutton's unlined ash pits for years, but never took enforcement action until August 16 — after the citizens groups tried to sue Duke. In its court filings, the state environmental agency said monitoring wells consistently showed high levels of arsenic, selenium, thallium and other potentially deadly chemicals.
In October, the company agreed to pay at least $1.5 million of a $2.25 million Cape Fear Public Utility Authority project to run new water lines to Flemington.
The pollution poses no current health risk to the drinking wells, Duke spokesman Thomas Williams said in an email. But the company was involved in the project to "prevent that possibility."
"This will continue to assure a high quality water supply for these customers, give them peace of mind and provides additional economic development benefits for that area," Williams said.
In the agreement to lay the new waterlines, both sides say "time is of the essence" for the project. The public utility has promised not to use any groundwater collected near the power plant's dump site.
Pressed by a reporter last week, state Division of Water Quality Director Tom Reeder conceded that the state was aware of the groundwater contamination leeching from Duke's dumps at Sutton and had done nothing to force the company to stop the pollution.
"We had detected that plume approaching the Flemington Woods subdivision, or something like that, Duke ... stepped up and provided that community with public water. But they have not done anything to stop the groundwater contamination yet."
Asked if the state used its regulatory authority to require them to, Reeder responded: "No, we have not."
On a sun-splashed afternoon last week, about 10 people gathered in Sam and Patricia Malpasses' front yard to talk — and vent their frustration with Duke and state regulators.
"When you own a piece of property one of the most important things to have on that piece of property is groundwater, drinking water." Sandlin said. "We don't have that."
He said residents can't get "straight answers" to their questions for either Duke or the state.
"They just push us to the side and do what they want do to do. They don't come down and meet with us. They've never come down here for an opinion: 'How do you feel about it.' They look at us like a thorn in their side. No one told us what was going on."
They all expressed concern about the threat of a coal-ash accident like the one that happened in Eden earlier this month.
In September 2010, a portion of Sutton's coal-ash lagoons collapsed after a heavy rain, spilling waste down an embankment. The plant is located in a part of the state at high risk for hurricanes and tropical storms. The spill was on the landside of the lagoon. If it had been on the other, it would have spilled into the lake.
Sutton Lake is already facing serious problems, said A. Dennis Lemly, a Wake Forest biology professor who studied the impact of selenium pollution on the fish.
His study last year showed selenium from coal-ash waste was triggering mutations and deaths of several fish species.
"Over the years, as power plants have gotten bigger and bigger, they produce more and more ash and they have to have a larger disposal area. That means there's more wastewater — and that just increases the risks to fish and wildlife," Lemly said.
But Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni said the fish are safe.
"In more than 30 years of sampling, using well-accepted scientific techniques and observing hundreds of thousands of fish in Sutton Lake, Duke Energy biologists have not observed the health effects described in the report," he said.
Still, Malpass is taking no chances. He used to fish on Sutton Lake once a month. Now he stays home, not wanting to risk eating contaminated fish.
"What bothers me is that we're just finding out about this now," he said.
Biesecker reported from Raleigh. Follow him at Twitter.com/mbieseck