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.