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.