Residents see inconsistencies in wells DHHS says are safe
Posted April 19, 2016
Updated April 21, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — When North Carolina officials last month lifted recommendations that residents near Duke Energy coal ash basins avoid drinking from their wells, they said the decision was based on an effort to evaluate all water systems using the same standards.
But the Department of Health and Human Services has been unable to explain how it decided which of several wells to declare safe in letters to property owners. In some cases, well owners with high contaminant levels, particularly the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, received letters while neighbors with similar levels did not. State officials also said they weren't initially tracking which well owners had active do-not-drink advisories on file, a practice that changed since 2015.
Now, more than a month after residents near Duke plants originally began receiving the notices from state health officials, the department says it will declare four or five additional wells safe to drink – and more may come in the future.
Neighbors confused over state's communication
Private wells within 1,500 feet of Duke coal ash basins were originally tested early last year under the direction of the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act.
For many of the wells, hexavalent chromium was a particular problem.
There is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium specifically, and only one state, California, regulates the element in drinking water at 10 parts per billion.
Following advice from the Department of Environmental Quality, the state health agency in March abandoned a previous "health screening level" for hexavalent chromium of 0.07 parts per billion. Days later, they notified 235 well owners by mail that their water was safe to drink.
After weeks of questions from WRAL News, DHHS officials have so far been unable to explain the inconsistent distribution of these letters to several homeowners near the Buck Steam Station coal ash basins in Salisbury.
In an interview April 7, Public Health Division Director Danny Staley said he would have to forward questions about specific addresses to his technical staff, who could answer them in "a blink of an eye."
"I know what we went through to identify and make sure that the proper test and result was going to the proper address," Staley said. "I do know we did that."
Almost two weeks later, the department had not answered those questions.
But in an emailed statement, DHHS spokeswoman Kate Murphy said the department "continues to study and review this information," noting that several wells specifically referenced by WRAL News did not exceed federal standards for total chromium, which can include the more harmful hexavalent form.
"All of these wells meet the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and all will receive updated usage recommendations according to the EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level for chromium of 100 (parts per billion)," Murphy said. "Well owners are being contacted with this information."
In a follow-up Monday evening, Murphy said the department "believes the standards were applied uniformly across well owners."
But well testing data and correspondence from well owners show otherwise.
At Yadkin Grove Missionary Baptist Church near Buck Steam Station, church leaders say that, as of Monday, they had not received a letter declaring their water safe to drink, despite testing for hexavalent chromium at 10 parts per billion. That's less than the value found in three nearby wells cleared by the state.
Church Deacon Osheatia Roberson said the lack of clarity is fueling concern among well users like her.
"We're just in the dark here," Roberson said.
'My clients have absolutely no faith at all in the state. And no trust in them.'
Mona Wallace, attorney for well owners
Just down the street on Leonard Road, Marcos Albarran, his wife and four children did receive a letter in March telling them their water was safe to drink and use for cooking. His water tested for hexavalent chromium at 22 parts per billion, more than twice the level of the church. Testing for vanadium, a less harmful element that also triggered Albarran's original do-not-drink advisory from the state, showed higher levels than those at Yadkin Grove as well.
At her home on Long Ferry Road around the corner, Linda Wilson's well tested for hexavalent chromium at 21 parts per billion. As of Monday, she had not received a letter withdrawing the state's recommendation not to drink the water.
But she said she wouldn't trust such a letter even if she got one.
"Right now, we're just kind of in a holding pattern. You can't dig a new well and fix the situation," Wilson said. "Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen."
Mona Wallace, a Salisbury attorney representing residents near coal ash basins across the state, said she's hearing similar statements from other well owners.
"My clients have absolutely no faith at all in the state," Wallace said. "And no trust in them."
Lack of records goes unexplained
WRAL News requested a list of all addresses that received letters declaring well water safe to drink back in March.
DHHS officials said such a record doesn't exist. Instead, a department spokeswoman in April provided a spreadsheet she created herself of addresses that were supposed to receive the new letters.
Staley, the public health division director, confirmed in the April 7 interview the department tracked neither the letters nor whether a property had a do-not-drink advisory in place. If a well owner were to call the department to ask whether they were supposed to receive a letter, he said officials wouldn't have an immediate answer.
"We would have to go back and look at that specific result and go over it with them from that," Staley said.
Although he said that process was consistent with how the department handles new well testing, it's a change in practice from last year: Data available online from DEQ last updated December 2015 included a specific field noting each well's safety status.
'The biggest thing is feeling like you don't have a voice, or one person is not going to make an impact.'
Zeda Roberson, Yadkin Grove Missionary Baptist Church clerk
Since the interview in early April, however, the department appears to have altered course again. Murphy said Monday evening officials are now tracking recommendations currently in place for well owners, but she could not pinpoint when the practice changed.
As of Monday evening, the department had yet to provide any such tracking document.
Wallace said she too had questions about how the state issued and tracked its own correspondence with well owners when she noticed that several of her clients didn't receive updated safety recommendations from public health officials in March.
"The ones who didn't get the letter were more concerned than ever before," Wallace said. "This, of course, leads to the confusion and distrust of the state."
Her clients say they're finding it hard to understand the state's new guidance, especially given communication that, in her opinion, has been "far more inconsistent and haphazard than before."
The result, says Yadkin Grove Baptist Clerk Zeda Roberson, is widespread frustration among her church's neighbors in the area commonly known as Dukeville.
"The biggest thing is feeling like you don't have a voice, or one person is not going to make an impact," Roberson said. "I'm one little entity against this great big organization. In my opinion, I think that's what people are feeling."
DHHS has not said exactly when additional homeowners would receive letters withdrawing their do-not-drink advisories. In addition to the four or five now slated to get those notifications, Murphy said more may come as the department continues to review the situation and as lawmakers mull a change in the way recommendations are issued.
But to Phyllis Loflin-Kluttz, who received a letter from state officials declaring her water safe months after it tested for hexavalent chromium at 12 parts per billion, the new guidance probably won't matter to most of her neighbors.
"No, I don't trust that letter, and have I started drinking or cooking with it? No. None of us have. None of us will – even the ones of us going, 'I've been drinking this water for 60-some years,'" Loflin-Kluttz said. "We don't know what's going to happen to us in the next 10 or 20."