Raleigh, N.C. — State environmental officials announced Wednesday night they plan to convene a science advisory board to specifically examine health and safety standards for contaminants such as chromium associated with private wells near coal ash ponds.
The announcement came after media outlets, including WRAL News, reported that regulators with the Department of Environmental Quality 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 with private wells near the company's ash ponds with either new water lines or advanced filtration systems.
A draft memo obtained by WRAL News showed scientists with the state Department of Health and Human Services were critical of the DEQ-backed standard that would have required filters to screen out hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing form of the element chromium, at 10 parts per billion. Because that threshold didn't account for hexavalent chromium's carcinogenic nature over time, the DHHS memo said, it didn't adequately protect public health.
In a joint call for reporters at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday. announced with only minutes' notice, officials with DEQ and DHHS explained that the new science advisory board would develop new standards for contaminants, including hexavalent chromium, by serving as a form of external peer review.
"We think the best approach is to have this board of independent scientists," Sheila Holman, DEQ's assistant secretary for the environment, said during the call.
State officials said the standards DEQ announced last Friday for the water filters, which Duke must install by October 2018, could change after a review by the new board. Holman said the state's announcement last week was intended to provide guidance to the energy company based on its deadline next year, but she said it's also important to take a closer look at the science.
"The bottom line is that standards can and do change periodically," Holman said. "That's not something new for the agency or for the industry."
DHHS had adopted a "health screening standard" of 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium in early 2015, after consultation with toxicologists and epidemiologists inside DEQ and DHHS. The threshold was based on an increased cancer risk of one in 1 million from long-term exposure to the element, a calculation that followed state groundwater rules.
Danny Staley, director of the state Division of Public Health, said Wednesday night that the 0.07 parts per billion threshold remains the department's screening level. But he dismissed the notion that the two agencies were in conflict 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.'"
DEQ informed Duke a month ago that it would form the science panel, at the same time it first notified the energy company of the new filter standards for residents near coal ash. Holman said it's taken them several weeks to announce the new board publicly because of the time spent dealing with the discovery of a chemical compound called GenX in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.
"A lot of times, there are just not enough hours in a day," Holman said.
State officials said they expect DEQ Secretary Michael Regan to appoint new members of the Scientific Advisory Board by the end of the month. They'll be tasked with reviewing the latest research and looking more closely at what Holman called "some confusion in the scientific community" about the health effects of hexavalent chromium. They'll also look at how other states are dealing with hexavalent chromium.
"The reality is, from the regulatory standpoint, we believe we need this external guidance," Holman said.
The hope, Holman said, is for the board to produce recommendations about hexavalent chromium standards on or before the end of the year.