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Bad idea to revoke water advisories near Duke Energy plants, health official says

Some neighbors of Duke Energy’s Allen power plant in Gaston County have relied on bottled water since contaminants were found in wells last spring.
Some neighbors of Duke Energy’s Allen power plant in Gaston County have relied on bottled water since contaminants were found in wells last spring. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The state epidemiologist questioned a decision to tell nearly 400 well owners near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds that their water is safe to drink, a court filing shows.

Dr. Megan Davies said in a deposition taken and released by the Southern Environmental Law Center that she was “conflicted” over letters rescinding don’t-drink advisories issued nearly a year earlier. Davies, a physician trained in analyzing health patterns, said her boss also objected.

Duke says its ash isn’t the source of two contaminants found in neighboring wells, cancer-causing hexavalent chromium and vanadium, but the state has not confirmed that. Davies’ deposition was taken for state lawsuits against Duke over ash contamination.

Her sworn testimony shows that the conflicting advice given residents over the safety of their water reflects not only disagreements between health and environmental officials but within the health department itself.

That debate included the governor’s office, Davies said in the May 4 deposition.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office intervened, she said, on the wording of warning letters sent to well owners in the spring of 2015. Duke, Davies said, later met twice last year with top state officials, including two department secretaries, to challenge the advisories.

The state abruptly reversed course in March, revoking the advisories and telling residents their water is safe. Many neighbors, distrustful of Duke and regulators, continue to use bottled water.

Danny Staley, director of the department’s Division of Public Health, also objected to revoking the advisories before it is known whether the contaminants came from coal ash, Davies said in her deposition. Neither could be reached Friday.

“We both felt it made more sense to wait on source determination, because once a source was determined, we would have a sense of if this – the hexavalent chromium was a contaminant versus naturally occurring,” she said. “That is relevant because if it were a contaminant, there might be ongoing contamination of wells with the increase in levels.”

Frank Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who deposed Davies, said Davies “thought that giving the do-drink advice was not consistent with the department’s mission of protecting public health and welfare. That’s a very serious thing.”

Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director who rescinded the advisories, is scheduled to also be deposed by the law center. So is state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, who has publicly defended the advisories.

Kendra Gerlach, communications director for the Department of Health and Human Services, called it misleading for the law center to release the deposition, calling it “partial information.”

“The water in these wells meets the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” she said in a statement. “Allowing the affected residents to return to drinking their water is within federal and state guidelines and is consistent with safe drinking water practices across the country.”

Duke has previously criticized the state’s health advice to residents.

“We have long been advocating for clarity for plant neighbors on well safety and had appropriate conversations with regulators to ask many of the same questions that neighbors have been,” spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said. “We also provided scientific data to both agencies as part of the process to sort all of this out.”

Test standards questioned

Most of the wells tested showed hexavalent chromium and vanadium above screening levels the state established.

Davies said those levels were calculated as state law requires – the point at which drinking contaminated water for a lifetime would cause no more than one additional cancer in 1 million people.

Williams, the health director, and Duke have said the screening levels were too low compared to standards used elsewhere.

The health department says the well water near Duke’s plants meets federal drinking water standards. Davies said Josh Ellis, McCrory’s communications director, wanted that noted in health advisories sent to well owners. Ellis did not respond to a request for comment.

The well water meets federal standards because none exist for hexavalent chromium and vanadium. A standard for total chromium is intended to reflect its hexavalent form. The Environmental Protection Agency is studying whether to set a separate hexavalent chromium standard.

Advocates challenge state officials’ assertions that municipal water systems show similar levels of the contaminants.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, who works for a foundation the law center represents, compiled data showing that average levels of hexavalent chromium in private wells near two Duke plants, Allen in Gaston County and Buck in Rowan County, were at least 20 times higher than the averages of 11 public systems including Charlotte’s.

Duke says it is not surprising that groundwater would show higher levels of contaminants than treated municipal water that is drawn from rivers and lakes.

Few other private wells across the state have been tested for hexavalent chromium and vanadium, so there is little data to compare, it said. State tests also found the contaminants in groundwater not assumed to be affected by coal ash.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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