Two well owners living near coal ash pits who received letters from the state telling them their water is safe joined with Democratic lawmakers in Raleigh to call for an investigation.
By Rose Hoban
When contents of the huge coal ash pond sitting beside the Dan River near Eden began spilling into the waterway in February 2014, Deborah Graham took a harder look at the coal ash pond sitting near her own house in Salisbury.
Then the letters came.
The first one, in April 2015, told Graham and hundreds of other families using well water and living close to coal ash dumps to stop drinking their water. The second, delivered in March 2016, told residents that the state Department of Health and Human Services was withdrawing the do-not-drink recommendation because “we have determined your water is as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country.”
Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center released a deposition given by State Epidemiologist Megan Davies in which she detailed under oath how health officials disagreed over the safety of the water and whether levels of some contaminants found in the families’ wells were acceptable.
And that’s made Graham furious.
Her anger was palpable Thursday morning at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh. During a press conference with Democratic legislative leaders, Graham and Belmont resident Amy Browh accused state officials of bowing to pressure from Duke Energy to issue the “OK-to-drink” letters.
The two accused Gov. Pat McCrory of acceding to the wishes of his former employers, and called for the resignation of state Health Director Randall Williams, who signed the March letter, along with that of McCrory’s press secretary, Josh Ellis, who Davies said wanted the letters to say the wells met federal standards.
Democratic lawmakers said they planned to introduce legislation and wanted to hold state officials to account.
“Legislative committees could certainly investigate,” said Durham Sen. Mike Woodard. “If there are federal authorities who investigate, we certainly would encourage them to look into this as well.”
People need to know what happened in the meetings between Duke Energy officials, the governor and his staff and officials at the Department of Environmental Quality and DHHS, Woodard said.
One of the gray areas that’s made certainty over the well water difficult is the fact that neither the state nor federal governments have legal standards for several elements found in the water, namely hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium-VI) and vanadium.
Both elements occur naturally in rock and soil, and they also occur in coal ash sitting in the ponds. But it’s hard to determine the actual source of hexavalent chromium or vanadium in nearby wells.
“The state has not come out and said definitely this is coming from Duke.… Duke continues to say it’s not coming from them,” Brown said. “They can say naturally occurring every single day, but I would ask you: How is an unlined, leaking coal ash pit that contains toxic contaminants, how is that natural? That sits in my groundwater, right behind where I live.”
The two women detailed how they use bottled water for cooking and drinking, and Brown talked about her hesitation in putting her two young sons in the bathtub.
“I was told it was safe to bathe my children, but I would ask you: What mother feels comfortable bathing her children in water that has been said to be unsafe to ingest?” Brown said. “For my youngest … there is no playtime, bubble baths, you know, because of his mother’s concerns for his exposure.”
Woodard also said Senate Democrats plan to introduce a budget amendment to “call for establishment for state standards for hexavalent chromium and vanadium that reflect the CDC’s recommended health threshold of .07 parts per billion.”
That 0.07 parts per billion is also the point at which DHHS sets a “health screening level,” based on a one-in-a-million chance of developing cancer after a person is exposed over time to that amount in their water.
In Davies’ deposition, she said that she would not have told the well owners their water was safe to drink above .07 parts per billion. She also testified that level was agreed upon by both DHHS and DEQ officials.
According to Davies, she would have written, “I would say something along the lines of while there is an elevated risk … associated with levels of hexavalent chromium above .07, you can make a choice about that risk and how you use water.”
Instead, the letter to families told them the water was “safe to drink.”
“The deposition opened up more eyes and outraged neighbors,” Graham said. “With the pressure we now understand our state was put on by Duke Energy, who we all know has very deep pockets in our state.”
There is no legally binding North Carolina water standard for hexavalent chromium in particular; there is one for all forms of chromium of 10 parts per billion.
In a follow-up letter sent to Graham and Brown (see below), officials at the Department of Environmental Quality write that “a [health-risk evaluation] measuring hexavalent chromium with a lab result that is higher than 0.07 [parts per billion], but less than 100 [parts per billion], will allow for a more informed health risk conclusion by the well owner.”
There’s no binding federal standard for chromium, only a “non-enforceable goal” of 100 parts per billion, a level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says was “based on the best available science at the time the rule was promulgated.”
California is the only state that sets a stringent legal hexavalent chromium standard of 10 parts per billion.