Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina environmental regulators this month overrode the advice of state public health officials for more stringent standards for water filters to screen out a cancer-causing chemical for residents near coal ash ponds.
By state law, Duke Energy must provide residents near the company's coal ash ponds with alternative sources of water – either new water lines or filtration systems. Those residents have been drinking bottled water supplied by the company for years since state testing found elevated levels of multiple contaminants in their private well water.
The state Department of Environmental Quality last week announced new performance standards for water filtration systems that set the limit for a chemical called total chromium at 10 parts per billion. The standard would include hexavalent chromium, which both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization have designated as a human carcinogen, as well as a less toxic form of the element.
But months earlier, scientists with the state Department of Health and Human Services' epidemiology branch wrote in a draft memo that the DEQ standard was "not health protective" and that health officials would continue to use a threshold of 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium to evaluate risks to health. State toxicologists and epidemiologists set that "health screening level" in early 2015 after calculating an increased cancer risk from long-term exposure of one in 1 million, following state groundwater rules.
Details of the DHHS memo were first reported by WBTV News in Charlotte Tuesday night.
Hours after an original version of this this WRAL News story published Wednesday night, state environmental officials announced they plan to convene a science advisory board to specifically examine health and safety standards for contaminants like hexavalent chromium associated with private wells near coal ash ponds.
'I don't remember it going anywhere'
The April draft memo was prepared by Mina Shehee, an environmental program manager with the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch, who wrote that her office had confidence in the science behind the establishment of the 0.07 parts per billion threshold for hexavalent chromium. She wrote that, because DEQ's 10 parts per billion standard for total chromium wasn't based on cancer risk, "it is not health protective from exposure to a mutagenic carcinogen such as hexavalent chromium."
WRAL News originally obtained the memo through a law firm representing homeowners near coal ash ponds.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday night, DHHS Division of Public Health Director Danny Staley said that, although he couldn't remember all the details of the memo, Shehee's draft was part of a package of information the health agency was using to develop information for homeowners about the new filter standards.
"I don't remember it going anywhere," Staley said. "We were really working on trying to draft out the (frequently asked questions) to be included and working on different aspects of what we were doing at the time. So, it didn't go into any formal thing."
It was, however, reviewed by at least one other member of the branch's staff, the document shows. Shehee declined to comment without approval from DHHS media relations and was not included in the conference call Wednesday night.
None of the language from her memo appeared in the final FAQ shared with homeowners last week. Staley said his agency was under no pressure to exclude the information that was critical of the DEQ standard.
"When we looked at it, we really debated on trying to figure out when you look at cancer slope and you look at different levels out there, how to communicate and work with individuals," Staley said. "It's one thing to have a level there, but really we all began to think one of the best things to have is a conversation with people about the level, about the risk they may want to look at in their lives, about that lifetime exposure."
When asked whether the draft memo remains an accurate representation of the epidemiology branch's scientific opinion about hexavalent chromium standards, Staley declined to answer, saying he'd have to review the document more closely.
But he did dismiss the notion that the two agencies were conflicted over the appropriate standard to set for the contaminant.
"I don't think we're at odds. We've been working really close together on a number of different things," Staley said. "We just have a recognition that a performance standard which is going with a regulatory and enforcement role often can have a different level of what we would consider a 'health goal.'"
Holman said she's hopeful the external Science Advisory Board, whose appointments DEQ Secretary Michael Regan will make by the end of the month, will settle the issue with an independent review on or before the end of the year.
"We certainly acknowledge the concerns that were expressed addressed in the draft memo and we just believe that having that very public peer review process is the best way to reach closure on this pollutant," Holman said.
Homeowners cry foul over filter standards
In a press release Wednesday afternoon, attorneys with the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr., which represents hundreds of the families near coal sites across the state, slammed the DEQ standards, saying they would permit Duke to install water filters "that could allow contaminants at levels far exceeding the public water quality."
"These newly announced performance standards protect Duke Energy, not the families who drink the water," the release says. "They fly in the face of guidance from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and other experts."
Catherine Cralle-Jones, an attorney with the firm, said some well owners haven't received the choice of new water lines tied to public services, leaving filtration systems their only option for dealing with contaminants.
"With a 10-parts-per-billion standard, our clients would be getting worse water than they could from Roxboro or Stokes County," Cralle-Jones said.
Cralle-Jones said her firm is continuing to push for DEQ to set 0.07 parts per billion as the standard for any water filtration system provided to homeowners near coal ash ponds.
Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said in a statement Wednesday that the company will comply with state standards for the filters and that it does not "have a specific opinion on the standards themselves, since decisions about drinking water standards rest with federal and state regulators."
"While the NCDEQ performance standards are 10 (parts per billion) for chromium and vanadium, these treatment systems typically produce water below 1 (parts per billion) for those substances," Culbert wrote in the statement. "The final water quality depends on the well water before treatment, and each system's components will be customized based on that specific well owner’s results."
Culbert said so far 175 households have opted for a water treatment system, about 20 percent of the total. Some of those homeowners did not have the option to get a new public water line, Culbert said, because "the best and safest option is a treatment system when existing water lines are very far away or technically challenging to extend."
The systems Duke plans to install cost $10,000 to $15,000, with an additional $1,000 to $3,000 in annual maintenance, all of which the company will be responsible for.
Environmental groups on Wednesday also expressed concern over the apparent disagreement between the two state agencies.
"It seems that DEQ had an opportunity to act in the best interest of public health and decided not to, which is puzzling," Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, said. "When you have a department that's in charge of protecting people's health such as DHHS and you disregard their recommendation, it's a little puzzling."
Starr and others were frequently critical last year of the two agencies' handling of the well water quality issues under then-Gov. Pat McCrory, which resulted in conflicting safety advisories for homeowners and the high-profile resignation of the state's epidemiologist, who accused top government officials of misleading the public.
Starr said he thought things would change under Gov. Roy Cooper.
"I would expect something different with the new administration compared to the previous one," Starr said. "You would think, given the history of this issue and the human health impact of this issue, they would be more protective of human health and less protective of polluting industry."
A spokesman for Cooper, who during the campaign trail was critical of his Republican predecessor's handling of the coal ash issue, said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon that "families deserve to be confident in the safety of their drinking water."
"The executive branch should follow the advice of state scientists and professional agency staff, which is exactly what this administration is doing," Cooper press secretary Ford Porter wrote in the statement. He later added that decisions about standards should be left to state agencies without interference.
"That's exactly what the Science Advisory Board is designed to do," he wrote in a follow-up email.
For now, Cralle-Jones says the communication from the state to her clients isn't sufficient to explain the process.
"The letter that DEQ is sending out to our clients acknowledges that there's a difference, and then they just punt," she said.
Letters sent from DEQ to affected homeowners, dated Friday, say the agency's water filtration standards "will ensure your drinking water meets all state and federal standards for coal ash constituents." The letter also includes frequently asked questions that list the total chromium standard of 10 parts per billion, noting that it's "based on the assumption that all chromium present is in the hexavalent form."
Although the FAQ provides the general definition of a "health screening level," it does not note that the DEQ standard is more than 140 times the DHHS level.
DEQ informed Duke Energy of the new performance standards for water filters nearly a month before homeowners. The letter to Duke, dated June 14, notes there are differences between the standards and DHHS health advisory levels.
It also mentions it will refine the process for determining standards in the future, turning the review of standard over to the Science Advisory Board the agency formally announced Wednesday night.
"It is DEQ's intent that when establishing future groundwater standards, DEQ will seek comment form the Science Advisory Board, where medical and scientific professionals will look at these standards in a more holistic manner before they are adopted," the letter reads. "It is our hope that using this approach will future ensure that appropriate groundwater standards are established."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with comments from officials at DHHS, DEQ and the Governor's Office.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used the incorrect day of the week to describe when environmental groups responded to the memo. It was Wednesday, not Tuesday.