While lawmakers mull change, DHHS goes silent on well water safety guidance

Posted April 20, 2016
Updated April 21, 2016

A Duke Energy contractor delivers bottled water to a home on Leonard Road in Salisbury, N.C., near the Buck steam plant on April 7, 2016 (Tyler Dukes/WRAL).

— State health officials say they will no longer comment on the safety guidance they're providing to owners of wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds as North Carolina lawmakers consider changes to how those advisories are issued.

After weeks of unanswered questions about how the Department of Health and Human Services decided which of several wells to declare safe in letters to property owners last month, agency spokeswoman Kate Murphy said a draft bill lawmakers are currently considering might impact both the process of well testing and recommendations.

"We are carefully monitoring this proposed legislation and are not able to comment further on safety recommendations until the General Assembly takes action," Murphy said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

The legislature's Environmental Review Commission last week approved the draft bill for consideration during the upcoming short session, but it won't be formally introduced until after lawmakers gavel in Monday.

Among other things, the measure would tie future health advisories on well water to federal standards where they exist. Where they don't, the current draft allows the use of state standards if the contamination "presents an imminent threat to public health, safety and welfare or the environment."

But questions remain about whether that provision will apply to hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing element not currently regulated by federal or state standards.

Last March, as part of the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act, state officials began testing and assessing the safety of private drinking water wells within 1,500 feet of Duke coal ash basins. Using the process established by the state's groundwater monitoring law, a team of toxicologists at DHHS set a "health screening" level for hexavalent chromium of 0.07 parts per billion – a threshold many of the wells exceeded.

That prompted state health officials to issue do-not-drink recommendations for hundreds of wells near coal ash basins across the state, largely for hexavalent chromium.

But state officials at DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality changed course last month, sending hundreds of well owners letters declaring their water safe to drink again. DHHS and DEQ pointed to a lack of federal standards for the element, noting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulated drinking water only for total chromium at 100 parts per billion. Total chromium can include hexavalent chromium and less harmful forms of the element.

A handful of well owners near the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury received letters declaring their water safe despite levels of hexavalent chromium that exceeded 10 parts per billion – higher than 99 percent of the country's municipal water systems, according to EPA testing data analyzed by WRAL News.

That's also higher than the limit for hexavalent chromium established in California, the only state in the country to regulate the element.

DHHS officials have not been able to explain why some well owners with high levels of hexavalent chromium, particularly those near Buck, received letters declaring their water safe while neighbors with similar levels did not. Nor have they explained why, for at least a month, state officials failed to track who received the letters and which properties had do-not-drink recommendations still in effect.

After WRAL News shared addresses that received inconsistent safety guidance with DHHS officials, Murphy said more well owners would be receiving letters declaring their drinking water safe.

She also said the department began tracking where it sent letters some time after early April, but she was unable to pinpoint the timing of the change.

DHHS has yet to provide any such tracking document in response to a public records request.

Lawmakers at the Environmental Review Commission said last week that the legislation, when introduced, would likely see serious review as it winds its way through the committees of the state House and the state Senate during the short session.

The intent, lawmakers say, is to cut down on the confusion of safety advisories they say were too cautious in the first place.

"They scared these folks erroneously," Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said at the ERC meeting last week. "Everybody thought Duke was poisoning them when they weren't."

State regulators, as part of the 2014 coal ash law, are assessing whether Duke is responsible for contamination in neighboring private wells or whether it can be attributed to natural sources. A research team at Duke University is also examining the issue.

But well owners near coal ash basins fear the new legislation will provide a way for regulators and health officials to shirk responsibility for protecting residents' drinking water – and they say it's adding to the feeling the state is ignoring concerns for their safety.

"It's like they're deaf to us," Amy Brown, well owner near Belmont, said.

Read the draft bill

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  • Lance Boyle Apr 21, 2016
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    water water everywhere and not a drop to drink