Raleigh, N.C. — Months after telling the owners of hundreds of wells near coal ash ponds that their water was unsafe to drink, North Carolina public health and environmental officials are now telling them the water is fine.
The Coal Ash Management Act required the state Department of Health and Human Services to test wells near ash ponds for compounds associated with coal ash, and 330 well owners were told last year not to use their water for drinking or bathing and were given bottled water instead.
On Thursday, state officials will mail letters to 235 of those well owners, telling them their water is safe after all.
The chemicals in the water haven't changed, but the state's guidelines have.
Most of the "do not drink" advisories were based on levels of vanadium or hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, found in the water. DHHS had set its threshold for vanadium at 0.3 micrograms per liter and chromium-6 at 0.07 micrograms per liter – levels for a one in a million increase in cancer risk.
Tom Reeder, deputy secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said Wednesday that those levels are far stricter than public water standards.
"Seventy percent of the municipal water systems in the United States of America would have either chromium-6 or vanadium levels that would exceed the health risk thresholds that were used by the Department of Health and Human Services for their do not drink notification," Reeder said.
DHHS has agreed to raise its thresholds to 20 micrograms per liter for vanadium and 10 micrograms per liter for chromium-6.
"We have been very cautious," DHHS Deputy Secretary Randall Williams said. "We feel that the position we're arriving at now is after a lot of due diligence."
Officials say they are following standards set by the federal government and other states, which Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said is troubling.
"I do understand that they're letting the neighbors know that their water isn't any more dangerous than the public water supply, but it is concerning that we've got this carcinogen in our public water supply at these levels that exceed what causes cancer," Harrison said.
The new standards mean Duke Energy will no longer have to provide bottled water to homes where the water has been declared safe to drink.
State lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory's administration have taken a lot of heat over contaminated wells, and Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr said it's no coincidence the standards were relaxed before the upcoming election.
"Without question, this is politically motivated," Starr said.
Amy Adams, state campaign coordinator for environmental group Appalachian Voices, called the state's move "a shell game" and criticized regulators for a "cavalier" attitude toward drinking water.
"They have an opportunity to be more protective of North Carolina citizens, but they've fallen back of the old standby of, ‘The federal government isn't regulating it, The state won't either,'" Adams said.
"There's going to be hell to pay for somebody at the end of the day who has to explain to people why it was too dangerous to drink two days ago, but today it's fine," she continued. "You didn't fix the problem. You lowered the number."
DHHS officials say water from 95 wells near coal ash ponds is still considered unsafe to drink or use.
Regulators said the strict guidelines were hurting property values and causing unnecessary stress, and Reeder said life can return to normal for people who use wells that have been cleared under the new guidelines.
"You're drinking the same water as Raleigh. You're drinking the same water as Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver," he said. "Drink the water. I would drink the water. I would advise anybody to drink the water. It meets the federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards."