Under the Dome

Democratic Party joins fray over safe wells

In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Jenny Edwards, program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, scoops coal ash from the banks of the river as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill in Eden, N.C. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant.
In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 photo, Jenny Edwards, program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, scoops coal ash from the banks of the river as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill in Eden, N.C. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant. AP

Political fallout from the state’s revocation of its do-not-drink notice to well owners near coal ash ponds was stoked further on Thursday when the N.C. Democratic Party filed a public records request with the governor’s office.

The party requested all communication between Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director, Josh Ellis, and Duke Energy, the state Department of Health and Human Services, and the state Department of Environmental Quality regarding safe levels of contaminants in drinking water.

The state’s epidemiologist testified in a deposition that was made public last week that Ellis wanted a notice included in health advisories being sent to well owners that the health department said the wells met federal standards.

Democratic Party chairwoman Patsy Keever announced the records request at a news conference at party headquarters in Raleigh.

“Sworn testimony suggests the governor’s press staff pressured state water experts to lift ‘do not drink’ orders for families living near coal ash ponds,” she said.

Asked if Ellis’ request wasn’t just an effort to provide well owners with additional, reassuring information, Keever said the records could disclose his motive. “We need to look into who is making those decisions and why,” Keever said.

State testing shows the presence of contaminants associated with coal ash in neighboring private wells. But Duke Energy contends that doesn’t mean the contaminants — hexavalent chromium and vanadium — came from its ponds, since they are present in parts of the state that are not near coal ash storage sites.

Last year, DHHS warned several hundred well owners around the state not to drink their water. In March, the state’s health director rescinded that warning and said the water was safe to drink. Many well owners, however, don’t trust state regulators or the utility.

The state agencies have said the original do-not-drink notice was issued to be abundantly cautious while the issue was studied. They say the water meets federal standards.

State legislators are working on a new coal ash bill that would reconstitute a coal ash regulatory commission and provide permanent connections to water systems. Duke Energy has been providing well owners bottled water for the past year. The commission would determine how aggressively the coal ash ponds should be closed and cleaned up.

The House and Senate are working out final details of the bill, which could be approved and sent to the governor next week. McCrory, however, has promised to veto it and take the issue to court if his veto is overridden. He contends the legislature is overstepping its authority by creating an executive branch panel.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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