Raleigh, N.C. — State health officials have informed several Salisbury homeowners near Duke Energy's coal ash basins that their water is unsafe to drink, changing course again on guidance over elevated contaminant levels in private wells.
Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday called at least three well owners with levels of hexavalent chromium higher than 10 parts per billion to recommend they no longer use their water for cooking or drinking. Hexavalent chromium is recognized by federal and international health agencies as a known human carcinogen.
The phone calls came about 24 hours after the release of testimony by State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams, who told lawyers on May 18 in an ongoing suit over coal ash cleanup that he planned to contact a handful of homeowners that day with updated safety recommendations. On Tuesday, two weeks after he made those statements, WRAL News reported that Williams had yet to make those calls.
At least one Salisbury well owner with elevated levels, Janet McKinney, said Thursday afternoon that she still hadn't been contacted (a DHHS spokeswoman disputed this, claiming McKinney was contacted Wednesday).
For her neighbor, Marcos Albarran, Williams' call Wednesday marks the third time state officials have issued guidance over the use of his well water.
"It kind of helps me understand what's going on with this issue, but at the same time, it's kind of confusing," Albarran said.
A letter in May 2015 first advised him not to drink or cook with his water after DHHS officials said levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium exceeded a health screening threshold. Nearly a year later, in March 2016, the state reversed that recommendation for his well and more than 200 others. Health and environmental officials at the time said they determined his water "is as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country."
A WRAL News analysis in April showed that Albarran's well and a handful of others with hexavalent chromium levels above 10 parts per billion had more of the contaminant than 98 percent of the public water systems tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Regulators with the Department of Environmental Quality are working to determine whether the coal ash pits are the cause of the contamination, although Duke has long attributed it to natural sources.
Although neither the state nor the federal government regulate hexavalent chromium specifically, North Carolina does have a groundwater standard of 10 parts per billion for total chromium, which can contain less harmful forms of the element.
This standard was noted repeatedly in well testing data maintained in 2015 by DEQ and reviewed by DHHS, as well as in a draft report of the state's existing hexavalent chromium standards Williams reviewed in March.
That 11-page report, Williams has said, largely drove his decision to lift do-not-drink recommendations in March.
Yet, in the days before his sworn May 18 deposition, Williams said, he decided to again advise residents not to drink well water with hexavalent chromium higher than 10 parts per billion "after it came to my attention that the groundwater standard for chromium was 10."
He attributed that realization to questions raised by WRAL News, which for months has been asking why the department has provided inconsistent safety guidance to neighbors with similar contaminant levels.
When reached Thursday afternoon, DHHS communications staffers did not directly answer questions about the safety advisory process, saying they'd have to check with officials in the Division of Public Health. Agency spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach said four well owners were advised Wednesday not to drink their water.
In an emailed statement, DHHS spokeswoman Kate Murphy attributed the two-week delay to the division's effort to be "collaborative."
"Division of Public Health staff felt a letter was warranted, and that has taken more time than a phone call," Murphy said, adding that Williams called the residents to explain a letter was coming and give them a chance to ask questions. "That decision was made well before the WRAL story."
That meant, for nearly three months, DHHS officials recommended that well owners like Phyllis Loflin-Kluttz and her neighbor, William Moore, could safely drink their water. Moore said the delay showed "a total lack of any sense of urgency about the matter."
"That kind of thing is why people don't trust the government," Moore said.