North Carolina still has conflicting safety standards for drinking water from private wells located near leaky coal ash ponds, but the state is turning to scientific experts to try to resolve the differences.
The conflict between state health and environmental regulators became a political flashpoint in the McCrory administration, and the issue has not been resolved under Gov. Roy Cooper. State health and environmental regulators announced Wednesday they will try to agree on standards.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan said a panel of scientific experts will study the issue. The panel will be comprised of toxicology, epidemiology and other public health disciplines. Regan said the current safety standards could change.
The question of how much of a contaminant found in coal ash, which is also naturally occurring, is safe has divided the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services since 2015. The disagreement erupted into a political dispute when scientists in DHHS accused Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration of weakening safeguards to the benefit of Duke Energy. A state health agency scientist resigned in protest of the McCrory administration’s criticism of a member of her staff who made the allegations.
The health agency wanted a far lower, more stringent threshold of hexavalent chromium, and in June 2015 issued do-not-drink notices to about 400 homeowners. In March 2016, a new McCrory appointee running the health agency and an official with the environmental agency rescinded that notice, saying a higher threshold was safe.
Duke Energy has been voluntarily supplying bottled water to those homes, although it contends the water is safe to drink.
On Friday, DEQ announced it would apply the higher standard that the McCrory administration had adopted for water filtration systems and connections to public supplies. McCrory said the Cooper administration’s adopting of his administration’s position was a vindication.
“This administration’s decision concurred with our decision well over a year ago,” McCrory said in a phone interview. “That’s the conclusion we came to, and I concurred they came to the right conclusion.”
Cooper, a Democrat, campaigned on McCrory’s clean-up of coal ash from 14 power plants around the state, following a massive spill of the material into the Dan River. “One of the things I’m going to do is listen to the scientists who are providing the advice, unlike Governor McCrory,” Cooper said during a debate.
On Wednesday, McCrory fired back.
“Gov. Cooper’s administration’s recent actions prove the point that the Cooper campaign deceived and lied to the people of North Carolina about, of all things, our drinking water in order to win an election,” McCrory said.
Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter replied in an email.
“Families deserve to be confident in the safety of their drinking water,” Porter said. “This confidence was diminished when the former-Governor’s office intervened to pressure state scientists for political reasons. The executive branch should follow the advice of state scientists and professional agency staff which is exactly what this administration is doing.”
One law firm that is representing homeowners near coal-fired power plants issued a statement Wednesday saying the higher threshold was insufficient.
“While we appreciate other efforts the DEQ has taken to address the coal ash problems, we believe the newly-announced standards are far too lenient to Duke,” said attorney Mona Lisa Wallace. “The would allow Duke to install water filtration systems that could contaminate at levels far above what hook-ups to municipal water would provide.”
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy said Wednesday that the filtration systems typically produce water well below the DEQ’s level.
“We welcome the state’s clarity and guidance on safe standards for whole-home treatment systems, and we will comply with the standards,” Paige Sheehan said in an email. “This represents another key milestone in bringing this issue to a close and allows us to move forward with installing these systems for neighbors who selected them. We don’t have a specific opinion on the standards themselves, since decisions about drinking water standards rest with federal and state regulators.”