RALEIGH — A bill before the General Assembly would prevent state health officials from warning homeowners not to drink their well water unless the contaminants in the water violated specific state or federal standards.
Earlier this year, the state rescinded hundreds of well-water warnings from the Department of Health and Human Services to residents near coal-ash sites after officials from the Department of Environmental Quality criticized the warnings as over-cautious.
The proposed law would bar health officials from warning residents about the presence of substances that aren’t regulated or warning about regulated substances present at levels lower than state and federal standards, even if state officials think those lower levels represent a potential health threat.
Two of the three co-chairs of the state’s Environmental Review Commission, Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, and Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, are among the bill’s sponsors.
A DEQ spokeswoman said the bill is inconsistent with a joint recent report from DEQ and DHHS.
“The intent of our recommendation is for health advisories for all drinking water supplies, including public water supplies and well water, to be consistent with the federal government’s safe drinking water standards,” DEQ spokeswoman Crystal Feldman told Carolina Public Press in an email.
DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre told CPP the department is monitoring the bill, but said it would be “inappropriate to comment further on this pending legislation.” She did not reply by press time to a follow-up asking if the department had shared any thoughts on the bill with legislators.
But others have not been shy in their criticism of the proposed bill.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a member of the Environmental Review Commission, said the notice issue has further eroded confidence in the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“First they say not to drink the water, then they turn around and say it is OK because there isn’t a federal standard,” she told CPP. “Very few people in this state have much confidence in DEQ right now.”
Environmental groups have also opposed the bill.
“The public deserves more, not less, information about threats to our health and the safety of our drinking water supplies,” Frank Holleman, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement to CPP.
“Surely, we have learned that lesson from Duke Energy’s coal ash scandal and the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Any time a politician tries to stop the public from getting information, everyone should be concerned.“
The bill would “cripple public health officials in their duty to” protect people from contamination in their water supplies, Katie Hicks, associate director of Clean Water for North Carolina, told CPP.
Hicks said there is a “huge backlog of contaminants that are totally unregulated” that the state would be unable to warn people about if the law passes.
And Hicks said the way federal regulations balance cost to polluters and the health of water consumers sometimes tilts too far away from public health for those standards to be a perfect benchmark for water cleanliness.
“What you end up getting is standards that are in some cases orders of magnitude weaker than what would be a health protective level,” she said.
Earlier in the year, Lefebvre, the DHHS spokeswoman, defended warnings that homeowners near coal ash sites received for hexavalent chromium in their well water. The warnings, which came as a result of testing mandated by the state’s Coal Ash Management Act, would not be permitted under the proposed law. There’s no state standard for hexavalent chromium. But state health officials have still calculated its chance of killing someone.
“Recommendations are based on health risks only and made out of an abundance of caution, which in the case of hexavalent chromium, may be a lifetime risk of cancer of one in one million,” she said in in an email at the time.
Later, after DEQ officials criticized the warnings for hexavalent chromium as well as a number of warnings for vanadium, more than 200 property owners received letters telling them the state’s warnings about their well water were rescinded. About 100 warnings for other wells, in which other substances were found, remain in place. Some of these are also located near coal-ash sites, though the clear link to Duke Energy’s facilities remains a matter of debate.
DEQ officials argued that the rescinded warnings had been over-cautious. They pointed to the fact that major city water supplies, including in places such as Honolulu, Hawaii and Riverside, Calif., have shown levels of hexavalent chromium as high or higher than the wells in question.
Environmentalists have countered that levels of the substance are markedly lower in the waters of nearby towns than in the wells near the coal ash sites. The problem, they maintain, isn’t the standard but the conflicting messages.
“The confusion was not caused by the original warning,” Hicks said. “The confusion was caused by the rescinding of those warnings and, to be very honest, the DEQ officials who are telling the legislature that they need to prevent future confusion like this are the ones who caused the confusion.”
Earlier investigations by CPP found that residents in these areas were confused and fearful about whether their well water was safe for human or animal consumption. Some residents in these areas, including locations near coal-ash storage sites in Buncombe and Rutherford counties in Western North Carolina, have described pockets of strange illness in their neighborhoods.
Editor’s note: Kirk Ross, capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press, also contributed to this report.