Well owners say new guidance raises old coal ash concerns

Residents near Duke coal ash ponds say the state's reversal of do-not-drink recommendations for their wells has prompted confusion and distrust over the safety of their water.

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Clean Water
Tyler Dukes
SALISBURY, N.C. — The letter Marcos Albarran received at his Salisbury home in mid-March should have been welcome news.

Albarran, his wife and four children had been avoiding their tap water since May 2015, when state officials told them their private well contained high levels of a cancer-causing element called hexavalent chromium. Instead, they drink and cook with bottled water delivered by Duke Energy, whose Buck Steam Station power plant and adjacent coal ash pond lie less than 1,500 feet away from their property.

Now, almost a year later, top officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services informed Albarran by mail that his water was "as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country."

Yet, testing revealed last year that Albarran's well had a hexavalent chromium concentration of 22.3 parts per billion, higher than the concentration of hexavalent chromium in 99 percent of the country's public water supply systems tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis by WRAL News.

"That doesn't make sense to me. Why are they saying that?" Albarran said. "How can they still send me a letter saying it's OK for me to drink the water and to give it to my children?"

Similar letters went out to 235 property owners living near nine of Duke's coal ash sites across the state.

Officials at DHHS and DEQ say many of the withdrawals were based on a re-evaluation of standards for hexavalent chromium, which across the country are few and far between, as well as a science-based revision to its initially cautious approach to the carcinogen. Because none of these wells violated federal drinking water standards, environmental regulators say they were comfortable giving them the OK to drink.

"I look at things in a black-and-white, binary fashion: Either you comply with the law, or you don't," Tom Reeder, DEQ's assistant secretary for the environment, said. "If you comply with the law and the federal government says this water is safe to drink, then it's safe to drink."

But residents say the reversal has only added to the confusion and distrust over their water – especially for Albarran and a handful of his neighbors in Salisbury, who have tested for the highest concentration of hexavalent chromium in the state.

"Am I angry? As hell," said Phyllis Loflin-Kluttz, who received a letter from North Carolina officials declaring her water safe months after it tested for hexavalent chromium at 12.4 parts per billion. "Do I trust them? Not at all."

At his home on Leonard Road in Salisbury, Marcos Albarran's well has one of the highest levels of hexavalent chromium among wells tested by state regulators (Tyler Dukes/WRAL).

How safe is safe? State, experts disagree

DHHS public health officials last year originally set a so-called "health screening level" at 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium. A team of state toxicologists and epidemiologists based that threshold on an increased cancer risk from long-term exposure of one in 1 million, following state groundwater rules.

Testing above that concentration earned hundreds of private wells near Duke power plants, tested under the state's 2014 coal ash law, a do-not-drink recommendation from the state.

But in March, a draft report from DEQ recommended the state health agency provide well owners with "an improved risk communication plan" that should stick to the federal standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

For hexavalent chromium, that federal standard doesn't exist. Only one state – California – limits hexavalent chromium in drinking water to 10 parts per billion.

Instead, state environmental regulators told state health officials they should fall back on the EPA limit for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, which can include much less harmful forms of the element.
A little more than a week after DHHS officials reviewed the draft report, they sent out the first letters to homeowners withdrawing do-not-drink recommendations.

"In thinking about this in a logical way, you've got 200-plus folks who have gotten a use recommendation that nowhere else other than California would you have even a consideration of a use recommendation," Division of Public Health Director Danny Staley said.

That creates something of a dilemma, says Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. His team is researching the prevalence of hexavalent chromium in groundwater across the Southeast to examine if it's naturally occurring or the result of industrial activity such as the storage of coal ash, the byproduct of coal-burning energy production.

Whether regulators find hexavalent chromium in water at 20 parts per billion or 99, it won't be a violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"The law does not recognize, at least now, hexavalent chromium as a contaminant that could impact human health," Vengosh said.

But science does.

Both the EPA and the World Health Organization have designated hexavalent chromium as a human carcinogen. Although Vengosh said the state may have been too hasty in sending out the initial letters with too cautious a recommendation for hexavalent chromium, he said the environmental and health agencies repeated their mistake with the second letter.

"The bottom line is it's toxic," Vengosh said. "If it's more than 10 parts per billion, I would not drink this water. Between one and 10 parts per billion, it's a good question."

Private wells aren't covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning there's no authority to regulate them.

Yet, Vengosh said, the state has a "moral responsibility" to help people access safe drinking water, especially when the risks of contaminants can be quantified.

"It should be very clear: If it's exceeding a threshold we know increases risk of cancer, the state should find a solution," he said. "If we care about the health of people in this state, we should protect them."

City water tests lower for harmful element

After more than a decade of research, federal environmental officials are expected to the take the next step in a review of hexavalent chromium toxicity with the release of a draft report by late 2016.

But Reeder said that timeline isn't guaranteed.

"It takes them a long time to come out with this type of guidance," he said. "In the meantime, I personally see nothing wrong with advising these people the same way we advise all municipalities in the United States of America, which is to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act."

According to the final version of the DEQ report, the state's environmental agency doesn't plan on adopting any new regulations on hexavalent chromium until then.

"You still have to look at the EPA," Staley said. "They have not yet issued guidance about what they consider safe."

To Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, the "snail's pace" of new federal regulations – as well as the competing parties seeking to influence them – means states have an important role to play in developing their own standards to keep up with modern research.

In setting the health screening level at 0.07 parts per billion last year, Perkins said DHHS health officials were following the state's existing groundwater standards for calculating cancer risk.

"This wasn't a conservative or extra-cautious approach. It was the legally allowable screening level under the law," he said. "That's a good protective standard."

Perkins said he also takes issue with the claims by Reeder in town halls and before state lawmakers that well water near coal ash pits contains contaminants in line with most municipal systems.

A WRAL News analysis of EPA testing data shows that one-third of the public water systems in the state exceed the DHHS screening level for hexavalent chromium established in 2015.

Yet, at half of the coal ash sites tested, the median values of hexavalent chromium in private wells were higher than the DHHS screening level now discarded by the state.

"It's disingenuous, and it's dangerous," Perkins said. "It's baffling."

Near Buck Steam Station, the levels are particularly high for several homeowners, all of whom have levels of hexavalent chromium that exceed the California standard of 10 parts per billion.

Of the nearly 4,700 public water systems tested by the EPA between 2013 and 2015, only 88 have tested higher than that standard.

Although the contaminant isn't regulated by the EPA, Whit Wheeler, assistant director of water operations at the Raleigh Public Utilities Department, said he would have serious questions if the city's water supply tested as high as Albarran's – especially considering Raleigh's median value for hexavalent chromium is 0.05 parts per billion.

"Twenty parts per billion would raise my attention because that would be abnormal," Wheeler said. "I would be trying to find out why that sample was higher or where it was coming from."

But Wheeler points out that he wouldn't have the authority to make a determination of health risk, nor would that water violate the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

To Reeder, water that meets those standards is good enough for him and his own family.

"If you comply with those requirements, as far as I'm concerned, the water is safe to drink," he said. "I would gladly consume that water, no questions asked."

Letters leave homeowners confused, concerned

As a well water user himself, Reeder said he understands that residents still have concerns. State agencies have provided numbers to call to discuss risks and options for filtering water if residents are uncomfortable with the contaminant levels they're seeing in tests.

Even state lawmakers acknowledge the initial recommendations and the subsequent reversals have created confusion among well owners.

"They're confused because we confused them," Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "The state sent out one message and then said, 'Nevermind.'"

At Wednesday's Environmental Review Commission, a group McGrady co-chairs, state lawmakers plan to put forward legislation that will tie future health advisories to federal standards where they exist. Where they don't, McGrady said, the intent is to allow the state room to establish its own standards.

Whether that applies to hexavalent chromium will likely be an issue legislators will tackle during the short session.

For Loflin-Kluttz and her neighbors, the state's actions so far haven't been sufficient to address their concerns – either about their water or the state's decision to withdraw its use recommendations.

"The wells still test the same," Loflin-Kluttz said. "Show me where it's changed, other than our government has raised the standard to benefit industry."

Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said the company has no plans to stop delivering drinking water to people who live near its plants, although the company acknowledges it's a temporary solution.

For the foreseeable future, Albarran said he'll continue drinking and cooking with that bottled water, which averages 26 cases every two weeks. But he's still worried about the five years before he received the state's 2015 do-not-drink recommendation when his family drank well water they thought was clean – and what it will mean for their risk of cancer.

"I don't even want to think about that happening to my children, or my wife or anybody here in our community," he said. "Why should we be exposed to something like that?"


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