UNION COUNTY, N.C. — A cancer-causing chemical element is showing up in wells in one of the area's fastest-growing counties, and after years of waiting, leaders now have a plan to deliver clean drinking water to several neighborhoods.

The Union County Board of Commissioners approved a new priority list just last week to address water needs across the county. Pinewood Forest Drive in Indian Trail, home to high levels of arsenic, is now at the top of that list, much to the relief of homeowners.

"We can't drink our water, I can't cook with our water," Carole Brese said. "We're able to bathe in it and that's all. The county sent us a letter that said, 'Do not drink your water or cook with it.' We have to buy bottled water, bottles in the bathroom, bottles in the kitchen. It's very inconvenient."

Rightfully concerned about the arsenic in their well water, she and others started begging the government for help years ago. 

Frustrated by a lack of action, they reached out to NBC Charlotte.

"They've been telling us five years every year," she said. "Every time we call, they keep telling us, 'It's going to be five years.' It's very frustrating."

You can't taste or smell arsenic, but it's especially common in Union County wells. Found naturally in the ground, one out of every five wells tested by the state registered above the maximum safe arsenic level.

Arsenic isn't the only contaminant or issue with wells in Union County. As it stands, there are more than 60 applications for water line extensions impacting hundreds of people that are currently backlogged. 

In an effort to resolve seven years' worth of backlogs, Union County commissioners recently approved a new ranking system to bring water to those who want it. 

They ranked outstanding requests by priority.

After Pinewood Forest, there are six additional neighborhoods with documented major contaminants and a handful of others the county expects to complete with $5 million in approved funding. The funding is expected to help just under 100 people, but could help even more.

The county isn't ready to give a specific timeline for completion. However, Union County said homeowners with pending applications will be contacted within the next few months.

"Union County believes in the importance of helping our residents get access to safe water," the county said in a statement. "Because of that, the Board of Commissioners recently allocated additional funding for the water line extension program. In conjunction with additional funding, a request prioritization system was established that ranks applications based on a number of factors including health concerns with current water source, the number of applicants associated with a request and how long an applicant has been waiting. Under the new program revisions, the applicants on Pinewood Forest Drive are now considered top priority for extension and connection to the county water system."

So many others across the Carolinas are like these people. 

A 2017 Environmental Science & Technology study ranked North Carolina fourth in the country for arsenic in well water with more than an estimated 119,000 people whose drinking water comes from wells with elevated levels of the dangerous contaminant. The estimates for South Carolina were 28,131.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has a breakdown of every county's contaminants in the state. NCDHHS said the best thing you can do to protect the safety of your drinking water is to test your well for heavy metals like arsenic at least once every two years. 

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