Under the Dome

Erin Brockovich cites NC in plea for EPA to act

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., greeted Trevor Schaefer and Erin Brockovich, president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, before they testified during an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on "Disease Clusters and Environmental Health" in 2011.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., greeted Trevor Schaefer and Erin Brockovich, president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, before they testified during an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on "Disease Clusters and Environmental Health" in 2011. Pete Marovich/MCT

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich – whose efforts to expose hexavalent chromium in a California town’s drinking water were made into a movie starring Julia Roberts – is asking federal regulators to quickly set a nationwide standard for the toxic compound.

A letter Brockovich and the Environmental Working Group plan to send to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday refers extensively to North Carolina’s controversy over the safety of drinking water wells near coal ash basins across the state.

“It is clear that the delay is sowing confusion among state and local regulators, utilities and the public about how much hexavalent chromium is safe in drinking water,” the letter says.

The letter goes into detail about the controversy over the recent deposition testimony of a North Carolina public-health toxicologist and the state epidemiologist. The epidemiologist, Dr. Megan Davies, resigned in protest last week after the governor’s administration singled out the toxicologist, Kenneth Rudo, for criticism.

The EPA has considered setting a federal maximum level for the potentially cancer-causing contaminant for several years, but the process has been slow. The current federal level of 100 parts per billion for total chromium was set 25 years ago and is considered outdated.

There is another form of the compound, trivalent chromium, that is much less toxic. Environmentalists are asking the EPA to set a standard specifically for hexavalent chromium.

California, the only state that has its own standard, has a far more restrictive threshold of 10 parts per billion. But that state doesn’t necessarily issue do-not-drink letters even when the levels are far higher than that, according to records provided to The News and Observer on Monday.

The controversy in North Carolina was over whether a health screening level of 0.07 parts per billion was appropriate, and how best to explain health risks to well owners and let them decide whether to live on bottled water provided by Duke Energy or continue drinking and cooking with their well water.

An email provided by the state Department of Environmental Quality on Monday shows that scientists with DEQ and the state Department of Health and Human Services wrestled over how to communicate those risks as early as 2014, especially how to explain such a big gap between the federal and state thresholds.

“I personally think it is ill-advised to direct consumers – ANY consumers – to stop drinking water due to a chemical detection when that contaminant is regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects well over 300 million people nationally, and is below the regulatory limit for that contaminant,” Public Water Supply Section chief Jessica Godreau wrote in the email.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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