Timeline: Years later, well owners near coal ash still grapple with safety concerns
Posted July 19, 2017 10:38 a.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 3:11 p.m. EDT
Amid the slow-burning saga of coal ash in North Carolina, hundreds of homeowners within eyeshot of the waste pits have received conflicting and often confusing information over the past several years from state officials about the safety of their well water.
Here's a look at how the state has handled the issue, which has now played out under the oversight two different governors and the state agencies they oversee.
Sept. 20, 2014: The Coal Ash Management Act, passed in the wake of a massive coal ash spill in the Dan River in February 2014, becomes law. The measure creates a clean-up process for Duke Energy's decades-old pits of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for energy that contains heavy metals and other hazardous compounds.
The new law also mandates testing of private well water for homeowners who live within a half-mile of the ash ponds. The bill's language specifies that, if the drinking water exceeds groundwater quality standards – thresholds typically more stringent than federal and state standards – Duke must supply safe drinking water.
Dec. 17, 2014: Officials with the Department of Environmental Quality begin contacting well owners within a half-mile of coal ash pits across the state to participate in the well testing program. The tests, paid for by Duke and conducted by outside laboratories, sample the water for dozens of different contaminants, such as iron, lead and chromium.
January 2015: State officials opt to add hexavalent chromium to the list of contaminants being tested. Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, is a specific form of chromium recognized by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization as a human carcinogen. It's also far more toxic than its related compound, trivalent chromium, which can be included in measurements of total chromium.
California is the only state to specifically limit hexavalent chromium in drinking water at 10 parts per billion, a regulation that went into effect in July 2014. The state also has a "public health goal" of 0.02 parts per billion.
North Carolina's groundwater standard for total chromium of 10 parts per billion is far more strict than the EPA's 100 parts per billion limit for drinking water. But neither standard accounts for the carcinogenic nature of hexavalent chromium, and neither state nor federal agencies have a specific limit for it.
So, scientists at DEQ, with review from epidemiologists at the state Department of Health and Human Services, follow state groundwater rules to set a screening threshold for the carcinogenic contaminant at 0.07 parts per billion. At that level, experts expect an increased cancer risk of one in 1 million given lifetime exposure to hexavalent chromium, meaning one case of cancer given a population of 1 million people.
This 0.07 parts per billion threshold is "health protective," so according to State Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies, it "doesn't try look at how expensive is it going to be to get water down to that level or how feasible is it to get water down to that level."
March 15, 2015: In an email to DHHS environmental program manager Dr. Mina Shehee, DHHS toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo tells his supervisor that he objects to language in the health risk evaluations they're preparing to send to well owners near coal ash ponds. He says he takes issue with "absolutely scientifically untrue human health" statements added to the forms that imply that 100 parts per billion of total chromium is considered safe, per the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
In sworn testimony, DHHS communications director Kendra Gerlach later reveals that the language that appears on the final version of those risk evaluations came directly from the Governor's Office.
April 2, 2015: According to sworn testimony from Rudo, Davies called him to a meeting with Gov. Pat McCrory's communications staff about the language of the letters sent to well owners near coal ash ponds. Rudo said McCrory had participated in the meeting by phone for a few minutes, a claim the governor later denies.
Mid-April 2015: DEQ begins issuing well water information to owners of private wells near coal ash ponds across the state that include use recommendations from DHHS epidemiologists. Hundreds of the letters recommend that homeowners not use their well water for drinking or cooking because levels of several contaminants – including hexavalent chromium – exceed groundwater standards and state health screening levels.
The letters note, however, that wells "would still meet all the criteria of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for public drinking water sources."
April 2015: Duke begins supplying bottled water to residents near its coal ash ponds.
Jan. 21, 2016: According to sworn testimony, Rudo is approached by Shehee, who tells him State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams wants them to retract do-not-drink recommendations for hundreds of residents near coal ash ponds – a move Rudo opposes.
March 2, 2016: A draft report from DEQ recommends 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. No federal standard exists for hexavalent chromium, so that would mean using the EPA limit for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, calculated before science showed the cancer risk of the more toxic form of the element.
March 11, 2016: A form letter from North Carolina environmental and health officials sent to hundreds of homeowners near Duke coal ash ponds declares well water safe to drink again after saying the original thresholds for several contaminants set by state regulators, including hexavalent chromium, were stricter than standards for public water sources.
April 2016: Some residents near coal ash ponds have been using bottled water to drink, bathe and cook for more than one year.
April 13, 2016: 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 of 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium.
Of the nearly 4,700 public water systems tested by the EPA between 2013 and 2015, only 88 have tested higher than 10 parts per billion – the state groundwater standard for total chromium.
April 19, 2016: Despite state officials' claims that they have been consistent in their safety guidance to well owners near coal ash ponds, WRAL News reveals that several homeowners with similar levels of contaminants were sent different information about the safety of their water.
After DHHS was contacted with questions about why well owners with hexavalent chromium concentrations higher than 10 parts per billion – the state groundwater limit for total chromium – were sent letters declaring their water safe to drink, the agency responded by pointing out that these wells did not exceed the federal drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion.
May 4, 2016: In an ongoing lawsuit over coal ash cleanup, Davies testifies under oath that she opposed a multi-agency decision to declare hundreds of private wells near coal ash ponds safe, despite drinking water that exceeded a previously set screening level for hexavalent chromium of 0.07 parts per billion.
May 18, 2016: Williams tells lawyers in the coal ash lawsuit under oath that he plans – that day – to contact a handful of homeowners with new guidance declaring their water unsafe to drink. WRAL News had alerted the agency more than a month before that state health officials deemed these wells safe despite hexavalent chromium concentrations above 10 parts per billion.
May 19, 2016: Top Democratic state lawmakers hold a press conference to say they'll push to establish a water quality standard for hexavalent chromium, likely at 0.07 parts per billion, in an amendment to the state budget. It would be the strictest standard in the country – much lower than the 10 parts per billion limit in California, the only state that regulates the contaminant.
May 31, 2016: Two weeks after the state's health director said he'd contact well owners with high levels of hexavalent chromium to provide new guidance declaring their water unsafe – and almost two months after WRAL News alerted DHHS to the oversight – the agency has yet to call a single well owner.
June 1, 2016: State health officials tell several Salisbury homeowners near Duke's coal ash basins with hexavalent chromium concentrations above 10 parts per billion that their water is unsafe to drink, the second time officials have reversed their safety guidance for some private well owners.
July 14, 2016: Gov. Pat McCrory signs into law the Drinking Water Protection/Coal Ash Cleanup Act, which among other things requires that Duke pay to extend public drinking water lines to homeowners near coal ash ponds or provide them with advanced filtration systems.
Aug. 2, 2016: A partial release of a deposition in a related coal ash lawsuit reveals that DHHS toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo told lawyers in a sworn statement that he was summoned to a meeting with McCrory's staff in March 2015 about the language of the letters sent to well owners near coal ash ponds. Rudo said McCrory had participated in the meeting by phone. He also said in his statement that the state health director and state environmental regulators misled well owners about the safety risk when they rescinded do-not-drink letters in March.
Later that day, in a rare late-night press conference, McCrory's chief of staff publicly accuses Rudo of lying under oath and denies that McCrory participated in the meeting.
Aug. 9, 2016: An open letter issued by DEQ and DHHS accuses Rudo of inconsistent scientific conclusions and "unprofessional" conduct in sworn statements he made about potentially toxic compounds in drinking water.
Rudo responded by saying the statement was "demonstrably inaccurate" and said any fear and confusion among residents was the result of agency officials overriding scientific consensus.
Aug. 10, 2016: Dr. Megan Davies resigns as state epidemiologist, accusing officials in the state's environmental and health agencies of misleading the public and pushing a "false narrative" in their criticism of Rudo.
Aug. 16, 2016: DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart tells WRAL News his agency never took issue with the 0.07 parts per billion standard for hexavalent chromium, just the way the risk was communicated to the public. Van der Vaart said he believed the EPA standard for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, established before scientists new the cancer risk from the hexavalent form of the contaminant, provides adequate protection for drinking water.
Sept. 2, 2016: A campaign ad funded by Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat vying for the governor's mansion, attacks McCrory over his handling of coal ash cleanup.
Oct. 26, 2016: A peer-reviewed Duke University study on the origins of hexavalent chromium in North Carolina groundwater finds that the compound can occur naturally from rock formations in the North Carolina Piedmont, evidence that coal ash ponds aren't responsible for the contamination in neighboring wells.
Jan. 13, 2017: Duke announces a number of "goodwill financial supplements" to homeowners near its coal ash ponds:
- $5,000 per property "to support the transition to a new water supply."
- Cash payment to cover the difference between the sale price and fair market value of a property if a homeowner sells by Oct. 19, 2019.
- Cash stipend, valued at $8,000 to $22,000 per property, to cover 25 years of water bills for homeowners who move to a public water supply.
- Coverage of installation and maintenance of water treatment for homeowners who opt for filtration systems. Installation is valued at $10,000 to $15,000, with annual costs of $1,000 to $3,000.
The utility says these costs will be paid for by shareholders, not customers. It must also pay to run water lines to most homeowners from public water sources, per state law.
Feb. 1, 2017: DHHS toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo retires from DHHS after an almost 30-year career.
April 2017: Some residents near coal ash ponds have been using bottled water to drink, bathe and cook for more than two years.
April 13, 2017: Shehee authors a draft memo noting her division's criticism of a DEQ standard for hexavalent chromium for water filters of 10 parts per billion, which she says is "not health protective."
May 5, 2017: A court in California strikes down the state's 10 parts per billion limit for hexavalent chromium after an industry and taxpayer group successfully argues that it will be "massively expensive" for public water supplies to comply with the standard. The court orders state regulators to come up with a new standard higher than 10 parts per billion but still "as close as economically feasible" to the 0.02 parts per billion public health goal.
July 7, 2017: DEQ publicly announces requirements for the filtering systems Duke must pay to install in the homes of people near coal ash ponds who aren't receiving hookups to public water supplies. The standards set threshold for hexavalent chromium at 10 parts per billion, despite advice from DHHS scientists earlier in the year.
July 12, 2017: DEQ officials announce they plan to convene a Science Advisory Board to specifically examine health and safety standards for contaminants such as chromium.
Late 2017: DEQ officials expect their newly constituted Science Advisory Board to produce consensus standards for limits on hexavalent chromium, specifically for private well owners near coal ash ponds. This may result in altered standards for the filter systems Duke is required to install.
October: Deadline for Duke Energy to provide alternative water sources for homeowners near its coal ash ponds across the state, per state law.
Editor's note: In September 2015, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was renamed the Department of Environmental Quality under a legislative reorganization plan. For clarity, the agency is called the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, consistency throughout this timeline.