Raleigh, N.C. — Top Democratic lawmakers say they want to know why health and environmental officials retracted do-not-drink advisories for wells near coal ash ponds, despite water containing elevated levels of a cancer-causing contaminant.
At a press conference Thursday, legislators slammed state regulators for failing to protect well owners and said they would push to establish a state standard for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen linked to industrial waste. Homeowners adjacent to Duke Energy's coal ash ponds also called for the resignations of top officials for what they called a betrayal of trust.
"As a concerned mother, I am doing everything I know to do to protect my children. But for those things out of my hands, I look to the state to help me in protecting my children," Amy Brown, a well owner in Belmont, said. "The state has failed me."
Sworn testimony released last week revealed that one of the top doctors at the state Department of Health and Human Services opposed a decision by agency leaders in March to declare water in wells near the ash basins safe to use for drinking and cooking.
Almost a year earlier, those same well owners were told their water exceeded a safety threshold for hexavalent chromium of 0.07 parts per billion, a value established by DHHS toxicologists following procedures laid out in state law.
That threshold meant an increased cancer risk of one in 1 million.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, criticized the McCrory administration Thursday, saying appointed leaders at DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality sided with Duke and turned a "deaf ear" to well owners who have been confused and concerned by guidance from the state.
"People shouldn't have to ask these questions," Van Duyn said. "They shouldn't have to live in fear of a basic resource."
Democratic senators said they would introduce a budget amendment to establish a water quality standard for hexavalent chromium. Although they hadn't drafted the language yet, state lawmakers said they would likely push for a standard of 0.07 parts per billion.
"I think that number's pretty well set," Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said.
That would be the strictest standard in the country – much lower than the 10 parts per billion limit in California, the only state that regulates the contaminant. The 0.07 parts per billion limit is also primarily health protective, meaning it doesn't take into account economic and practical considerations regulations typically do.
It's hard to say what support such a measure would have in the Senate, which is now considering a bipartisan budget bill that passed the House Thursday. Representatives from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats were also unclear about the next steps for a potential investigation of the well-screening process, noting they would have to defer to the Republican chairs of House and Senate committees that oversee DHHS and DEQ.
Representatives for House Speaker Tim Moore did not respond to requests for comment. Gov. Pat McCrory's office forward questions to DHHS and DEQ, which issued a joint statement.
"The initial recommendations were issued out of an abundance of caution as state experts began to study an emerging public health issue," the statement read. "The state environmental and health departments believe that North Carolina should follow the drinking water standards set by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which applies to public water systems across the state and the country."
The statement did not address why sworn testimony from State Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies showed she objected to that stance and expressed concerns to State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams that the water wasn't safe – particularly for homeowners with hexavalent chromium levels higher than 10 and 20 parts per billion. Additional testimony released Thursday from Dr. Mina Shehee, a DHHS environmental program manager, showed similar reservations about safety and confusion among well owners.
Deborah Graham, a well owner near Duke's Buck plant in Salisbury, said the testimony shows Williams disregarded the advice of his staff when declaring wells safe, putting families in harm's way.
"Any state health director who does not protect public health is incompetent and should be removed from his position," Graham told reporters at the press conference Thursday. "Dr. Williams knowingly put our health at risk."
About two dozen protestors and well owners also took their complaints about coal ash cleanup to the Executive Mansion Thursday, arguing the state isn't doing enough to force the cleanup of coal ash basins.
DEQ announced Wednesday a proposal that would require the energy company to dig up and close its 33 ash dumps statewide within eight years. But environmental groups have decried a request from environmental regulators to review that plan next year, allowing for the possibility of some ponds being drained and covered, rather than excavated.
The gathering outside in the rain Thursday, organized by Clean Water for NC, Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups, said such a cap-in-place strategy would continue to pollute communities. They called for an independent committee of experts and citizens to oversee the cleanup process.
"Cleanup shouldn't mean dumping on other communities or covering it up and leaving it there" Sarah Mullins, a homeowner who lives near a plant in Goldsboro, said. "People shouldn't have to accept cap-in-place, and even if people have city water run to their house, this is just window dressing for a serious problem that needs to be addressed."
Although state regulators are still working to determine whether the contamination in well water near the Duke plants is the result of industrial activity or natural sources, the company maintains its ash basins are not the source.
The company also says capping and covering the unlined pits would be just as environmentally safe as excavation and may save costs that could otherwise be passed down to ratepayers.
In a statement, Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company has "long been advocating for clarity" for well owners and that officials have had "appropriate conversations with regulators on behalf of the customers we represent" to get questions answered.
"By its own admission, the new standards DHHS adopted about a year ago were not consistent with the way the federal government and any other state regulate those substances," Brooks said in an email. "Now, North Carolina is more consistent with the rest of the nation."