2.3 million North Carolinians rely on wells for their drinking water, but some 20 percent of the wells surveyed in the study had manganese levels that exceeded the EPA's recommended limit. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Randall Williams’ statements are the next in a series of depositions revealing tension at the top of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services over the health effects of coal ash on the environment.

By Catherine Clabby

A sworn deposition from North Carolina’s State Health Director challenges a claim made by another high-ranking state health official last month regarding the scale of discord within his department over revoking health warnings about well water near coal ash dumps.

Dr. Randall Williams says fear of political reprisals, also alleged, did not prompt him to send letters to well owners near Duke Energy coal ash dumps to reverse do-not-drink warnings. Instead, he was motivated by his observation that unjustified fears about the safety of well water was spreading, even in counties with no coal ash impoundments.

State Health Director Randall Williams after a meeting at the NC General Assembly. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Williams’ assertions are contained in a 280-page long deposition, a transcript of pretrial questioning, released by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Two weeks ago SELC released its deposition of state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies, who claimed the opposition to revoking do-not-drink advisories for wells near coal ash was broader that Williams contends it was.

In testimony recorded on May 18, the health director does confirm, however, that his department did not, as it had announced it would, send new forms that updated “usage recommendation” to owners of drinking water wells near coal ash ponds after sending letters reversing its health warnings. The decision not to send new forms stemmed from concerns from Davies and another health official that the notice could be seen as abandoning legitimate health risk assessments, Williams said.

In the Davies deposition, the epidemiologist said she opposed releasing a letter that said the well water was “as safe to drink as the majority of public water systems in the country,” which are regulated by federal standards. The letter did not disclose to well owners that federal rules do not yet regulate hexavalent chromium or vanadium in drinking water.

In her testimony Davies also said Danny Staley, director of the Division of Public Health in the state Department of Health and Human Services, agreed with her that health officials should wait until the source of two contaminants in the well water near coal ash sites was made clear before telling residents that drinking their water was safe.

[pullquote_right]This is one of two stories about depositions given by state health officials over the coal ash situation. The other story is here.[/pullquote_right]Davies said too that Williams voiced concern to her that the General Assembly might limit the state Public Health Division’s involvement in assessing well water if he did not send the letter to reassure residents about their drinking water.

Williams testified that before late February, both he and Staley also wanted to wait for that data before retracting the warnings. But after waiting for months for Department of Environmental Quality to supply data that would answer that question, he and Staley agreed to proceed with a letter, sent in March without waiting for the DEQ data.

“When Megan says in her deposition that Danny felt that we should wait on the data, at that meeting, that is not correct. Previously he thought that and I thought that. It became apparent to me … that the data that we were waiting for since October wasn’t back yet,” Williams testified.

According to the deposition, Williams said he did not recall Davies saying in a February meeting that she opposed sending the letter.

Duke Energy data reviewed

At the heart of this controversy is North Carolina’s very strict standards for two contaminants associated with coal ash waste. DHHS had set a threshold for the metallic element vanadium at 0.3 parts per billion and for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, at 0.07 parts per billion. That chromium level represents a one-in-a-million increase in cancer risk, state epidemiologists calculated.

Williams said that by February he and Staley had reviewed hundreds of pages of data that HHS Secretary Rick Brajer said originated from Duke Energy. The information seemed to indicate that natural sources, not coal waste, produced the hexavalent chromium and vanadium in wells. But, at Brajer’s direction, neither he nor Staley considered that information, prepared by hired consultants, when weighing the decision to rescind the do-not-drink advisories.

“Rick said … you can’t use or rely on the data because it has not been vetted by DEQ,” Williams testified. “So even though I had that, the only person that knows that is me and Danny. I have not shared that with anybody else in DPH and never made any decisions based on that.”

Ripples of fear

Williams said he was motivated to issue a do-drink letter by what he considered rising, but misplaced, fears regarding safety of well water in North Carolina after word about the do-not-drink advisories for wells near coal ash had spread. To his mind, he said, the standards used to issue the warnings were too conservative.

Well owner Deborah Graham holds up a photograph of the coal ash pit that’s several hundred yards from her home in Salisbury while at a press conference at the General Assembly in Raleigh. During her comments, Graham called for Randall Williams’ resignation. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Despite that, Lee County residents early this year grew concerned about the discovery in some drinking wells of low levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, even though no coal ash is present.

“When I turn on the news at night and see a reporter go, ‘The cancer-containing water down in Lee County,’ I have great concern,” Williams said. “Part of my job as state health director is to protect the people’s health. But also part of my job is to not unduly alarm people.”

The OK-to-drink letter sent to well owners said state health officials would send a new report about their water. But those reports were not sent, because of reservations by Davies and Mina Shehee of the division of occupational and environmental epidemiology.

“I think Megan and Mina struggle — and this has become relevant — with — they feel very strongly that HREs [health risk assessments] were calculated appropriately, that the educational part of this remains the same,” Williams said.

On the day Williams’ deposition was taken last month, he said his department would be issuing new warnings to owners of drinking water wells near coal ash waste where levels of total chromium detected are higher than those deemed acceptable in state groundwater rules.

The health director did advise four well owners not to drink their water on Wednesday, a DHHS spokeswoman said, because of total chromium levels of 10 parts per billion or more detected in their wells.

The department expects to send each of those four well owners letters today.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

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