State Politics

Democrats, NC coal ash pond neighbors call for probe

Leaders of the Democratic minorities in the House and Senate called Thursday for an investigation of the state health agency’s decision to revoke its do-not-drink warning for private drinking water wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds.

Democrats said they would introduce legislation establishing standards for the levels of two contaminants found in wells near the leaking, unlined ponds: cancer-causing hexavalent chromium and vanadium. There are currently no state or federal standards.

Senate Democrats said they will also attempt to amend the state budget to establish the level adopted by the federal Centers for Disease Control as the standard for those contaminants.

“This has all the elements of turning North Carolina into another Flint, Michigan, situation, and our community is at the heart of this issue and we will not just go away," said Deborah Graham of Salisbury, one of two well owners who participated in Democrats’ news conference at the Legislative Building.

Graham and Amy Brown of Belmont have been using bottled water for cooking, bathing and drinking for the past year. They said they have not been given satisfactory answers in their meetings with state environmental and health officials.

Duke Energy has has been providing residents with bottled water until the issue can be resolved. The utility says its coal ash ponds are not the source of those contaminants, which are naturally occurring. State tests have shown the presence of hexavalent chromium and vanadium in parts of the state not near coal ash ponds. The company says perceptions have been skewed because the state only tested for those contaminants at wells near the ponds.

Last year, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued the warning to nearly 400 well owners. In March, state health director Dr. Randall Williams unexpectedly announced it was OK to drink. Similar levels of those contaminants are found in municipal drinking water across the country, he said.

Spokeswomen for DHHS and the state Department of Environmental Quality issued a joint statement Thursday: “The initial recommendations were issued out of an abundance of caution as state experts began to study an emerging public health issue. The state environmental and health departments believe that North Carolina should follow the drinking water standards set by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which applies to public water systems across the state and the country.”

The utility has been saying that the administration overreacted with the do-not-drink notices, and now welcomes DHHS changing course.

“We are glad the state has returned to an approach for water standards that is more in line with water supplies across the nation,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said by email Thursday. “It’s unfortunate that mixed information over the past year has left those residents confused and concerned.”

Residents’ skepticism about state regulators’ ability to act independently of Duke Energy escalated last week when the Southern Environmental Law Center released a copy of a deposition of the state’s epidemiologist. She said she questioned the decision to rescind the warning letters. Dr. Megan Davies testified that her supervisor also objected.

Davies’ sworn testimony said Josh Ellis, Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director, wanted a notice included in the health advisories sent to well owners that the health department says the wells meet federal standards. On Thursday, another deposition showed that at least two additional DHHS employees expressed concerns about revoking the do-not-drink notices. One said she thought it would confuse well owners.

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday said there should be an investigation of the events leading up to Williams’ decision to rescind the warning, including looking at the involvement of the governor’s office. They did not say who should investigate, but speculated that legislative oversight committees could take that on.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO