NC lifts warnings against drinking well water near Duke Energy ash ponds

Nearly a year after advising hundreds of residents who live near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds not to drink their well water, state health officials abruptly reversed course Tuesday.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said it would rescind advisories issued last spring after tests found elevated levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium in private wells.

Both occur naturally and in coal ash. Duke says it is not responsible for the contaminants but has supplied residents with bottled water since then.

Many of the 369 advisories went to well owners in Gaston and Rowan counties, and some say they’re still not convinced their water is safe.

Amy Brown, an outspoken Belmont neighbor of the Allen power plant, said only a permanent solution – water filters or a connection to city water lines – would give her peace of mind.

“How can my water be unsafe yesterday but today, with the standards still the same, you want to tell me my water is now safe?” she said. “I don’t feel that anyone has given me any information for me to not fear my water.”

Lifting the advisories may do little to ease fears that have enveloped Duke’s neighbors for months.

“They’ve already scared people, and it’s hard to unscare scared people,” said Tad Helmstetler, Rowan County’s environmental health manager. Helmstetler, who works closely with neighbors of Duke’s Buck power plant, had received no word from Raleigh of the change.

The state health agency said the change was driven in part because similar levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium occur in public water supplies, including Charlotte’s, at levels considered safe. Recent tests have also found the elements in groundwater far from ash ponds.

The agency also said safety standards for those elements are likely to change.

“Using an abundance of caution, we issued low (screening) levels that we knew were low levels,” said Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, who joined the department in July after the screening levels had been set. “But we’re also humble enough to revisit them and decided that, based on new information, we felt it was appropriate to change them.”

The don’t-drink advisories were based on temporary screening standards that the department developed under the state coal-ash law. North Carolina has no groundwater standard for vanadium. A standard for chromium is meant to reflect its hexavalent form.

The state’s health and environmental departments sparred for months over the screening levels, internal emails showed, with the environmental agency warning they were too stringent. The departments eventually agreed.

Neither the federal government nor most other states have set standards for hexavalent chromium, which is of particular concern because it may cause cancer. The exception is California, whose standard is much higher than the North Carolina screening level.

DHHS’ decision to lift the don’t-drink advisories followed a meeting Monday in Lee County, where coal ash will be disposed of in a former clay mine. Hexavalent chromium and vanadium have been detected in wells.

The department told county officials that they would take back earlier advisories in Lee County and other parts of the state, the Fayetteville Observer reported.

The state Department of Environmental Quality plans to recommend a groundwater standard for vanadium of 20 parts per billion, far higher than the 0.3 ppb level used in assessing the wells, Williams said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates only total chromium in drinking water, is reviewing whether to issue a separate standard for its hexavalent form.

“We do not think it’s fair to single out ... well owners in 12 counties to recommend that they not drink their water” in light of changing standards and the elevated levels found elsewhere, Williams said.

Duke said bottled water deliveries will continue for the time being. The company says that its ash isn’t contaminating private wells but that it supplied water to give neighbors “peace of mind” as testing continued.

“We hope this is welcomed news to well owners, but it’s terribly unfortunate the state took almost a year to give them certainty that their water is safe to drink,” spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender