A vortex of coal ash swirls in the gray waters of the Dan River at Danville, Va. downstream from the Duke Energy Steam Station in Eden, N.C. John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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Pardon hundreds of residents across North Carolina if they’re confused about whether to drink from their wells after the state reversed course on that question Tuesday.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health had told owners of some 380 wells not to drink water due to elevated and potentially toxic levels of heavy metals, including hexavalent chromium, vanadium, lead, arsenic and iron, which were potentially linked to nearby Duke Energy coal-ash storage.

But state Health Director Dr. Randall Williams rescinded that order for most of the wells Tuesday, following a public meeting with Lee County commissioners Monday in Sanford at which plans to remove the warnings were revealed.

Advocates for conversation and public health, who have been pushing for more stringent guidelines on cleanup of Duke’s unlined coal ash ponds, are livid.

Katie Hicks, associate director of Asheville-based Clean Water for North Carolina, said in an email to Carolina Public Press Tuesday afternoon that her organization was “reeling from the news,” which she called a “train wreck.”

“It’s outrageous for the state to flip-flop on its recommendations,” Hicks wrote.

She also questioned the timing and justification of the move. “Why change this approach now, unless to shield Duke Energy from paying costs to connect residents near coal ash impoundments to safe replacement water?” Hicks asked, referencing a requirement that Duke provide bottled water to those affected.

On the other hand, Duke Energy applauded the state’s change of heart.

“Today’s news is welcome for well owners,” wrote Duke spokesperson Catherine Hope Butler in an email to CPP Tuesday afternoon. “But it’s terribly unfortunate the state took almost a year to give them certainty that their water is safe to drink.”

Carolina Public Press talked by phone Tuesday evening with Dr. Williams and Kate Murphy, senior manager of media relations for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Williams emphasized that, contrary to some early news media reports, the change in policy will not affect all wells that received “do not drink” warnings, but only those where vanadium and hexavalent chromium were the sole culprits.

“Usage recommendations around other elements, like lead or iron, still stand,” Murphy later clarified in an email to CPP.

Why the change

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DHHS tested wells located near coal ash basins following passage of the Coal Ash Management Act, which came largely a response to a disastrous spill at Duke’s Dan River site in Rockingham County in 2014.

The Division of Public Health warned residents with high toxin levels not to drink their water. Included were two pockets of Western North Carolina residents, near Duke’s site along the French Broad River in South Asheville and its Cliffside facility in Rutherford and Cleveland counties.

Duke distributed bottled water in each of those areas in compliance with the state law, despite denying responsibility for the substances found in the wells. The company said state health officials had set more stringent standards than the federal government does.

Butler told CPP last week that many of the wells in question were actually uphill from the nearby coal-ash facilities, making it nearly impossible for Duke’s operations to be responsible.

Another problem with the state testing program — few benchmarks existed to show what level of these same materials occurred naturally in deep wells at these locations prior to the storage of coal ash nearby.

These substances do occur naturally in geological formations underlying large parts of North Carolina. In fact they show up in public utility water supplies on a regular basis at levels well above the guidelines DHHS was using, without triggering any public health concerns.

After thinking over the situation, state officials agreed this week that Duke had a point.

“(Well water) usage recommendations were originally made with an abundance of caution,” Murphy said. “Further study of these elements, as well as municipal and other water sources throughout the United States has led DHHS to withdraw the previous ‘do not drink’ recommendation.”

Facts up for debate

The acceptable levels of these heavy metals, whether the contaminants found in most of the wells are tied to coal-ash and the degree to which they constitute a public health hazard are all questions that remain up for debate, with differing opinions on each side.

“Science and engineering should drive public policy decisions,” Butler wrote. “Evidence shows that our (Duke’s) operations are not impacting neighbors’ private wells. Water in tested wells is just as safe or better than the public water supplies millions of people in the nation rely on. These are facts.”

But others dispute some of these facts or interpret them differently.

“State officials owe residents and local officials in Lee County an apology, and they owe every North Carolinian an explanation,” said Amy Adams, N.C. Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

“Falling back on the flawed reasoning we’ve come to expect from the Department of Environmental Quality, the agency appears ready to abandon the health standards developed by DHHS. We share residents’ skepticism of the state’s sudden claims that their water has been safe all along.

“While DEQ leaders have repeatedly shown themselves to be clumsy when it comes to public statements, they always stress that they rely on the facts. But this decision shows the agency’s split-personality and an apparent disagreement on which facts matter and which can be ignored.”

At a public hearing on coal ash last week in Asheville, residents living near Duke’s Buncombe County facility told state officials that their neighborhood has soaring levels of cancer and immune disorders, which they blame on the chromium from coal ash.

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It’s not clear whether perceived pockets of illness in communities near contaminated wells are actually tied to the heavy metals or if they are numerous enough to constitute a valid public health issue rather than just the mere perception of one in the face of a the now-rescinded do-not-drink warnings.

One problem is the lack for federal guidance for hexavalent chromium levels in water, even though it’s a known cancer-causing agent when inhaled.

“In December, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue new guidance on hexavalent chromium,” Murphy noted.

It’s possible that the EPA could impose a standard that would reintroduce the “do not drink” warnings, possibly expanding them to the many city water systems that also have substantial chromium levels.

Despite these disagreements, Duke says it will continue aiding affected residents, who may be understandably confused and alarmed.

“There are no changes to water delivery right now,” Butler said. “We need to be thoughtful about what these families are going through, they have a lot of new information to sort through and we want them to have some time to better understand all of this. In the coming weeks, we’ll talk with them and decide next steps.”

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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