State: Water from wells near coal ash ponds safe to drink

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, March 9, 2016

State health officials this week will lift a “do not drink” recommendation for most private wells near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, according to Public Health Director Dr. Randall Williams.

In a phone interview, Williams said letters notifying coal ash pond neighbors of the state’s decision would be sent this week. Wells previously declared unsafe because of high levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium will specifically be affected, he said. Both are metals that are known to cause health problems. Hexavalent chromium can cause cancer at certain exposure levels, according to the National Toxicology Program.

The state’s decision comes amid concerns that municipal water in many cities, including Salisbury, contains higher levels of the same heavy metals as private wells near coal ash ponds. In Salisbury and other cities, however, the municipal systems meet state standards. More than a year ago, private water wells tested under the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act were declared unsafe to drink by health officials. Municipal water systems are regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition to wells near coal ash ponds, including Buck Steam Station, the state’s decision will apply to open-pit mines in the eastern part of the state, where Duke hopes to store excavated coal ash, according to Williams. He said the state’s decision to lift the “do not drink” recommendation won’t change the fact that there’s still a small cancer risk from consuming water that contains the heavy metals.

Most of the wells that received “do not drink” recommendations near Buck Steam Station showed elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

In the future, Williams said state health officials would base “do not drink” recommendations for vanadium on a level suggested by the Centers for Disease Control. The level Williams mentioned would be noticeably higher than the current standard. When health officials declared wells unsafe to drink, the maximum level was 0.3 parts per billion for vanadium. The new standard will be 20 parts per billion, Williams said.

He said a single vitamin can contain vanadium at levels up to 10 parts per billion.

Williams said the new standard for hexavalent chromium would be based on an upcoming Environmental Protection Agency report.

He said science surrounding water quality near coal ash ponds is “part of an emerging field.” When state officials declared wells unsafe to drink, for example, they didn’t have a federal standard to rely on for vanadium.

When asked about the state’s decision, Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman stressed the confusion many coal ash neighbors have endured.

“The state government told citizens around Buck and other coal ash sites not to drink their water because of the unacceptable risk of cancer and other illnesses,” Holleman said. “Now, the state is telling citizens, ‘Your water contains the same contaminants as it did yesterday, the health risks are just the same, but since other people are drinking water with as much contamination as your water, go ahead and drink it.’

“If the risk of cancer and other illnesses was unacceptable yesterday, why is it acceptable today?” Holleman asked.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Myra Blake added that some levels of hexavalent chromium near Buck Steam Station ash ponds are much higher than any other drinking water in the state. Duke Energy has repeatedly argued that “do not drink” recommendations could be based on naturally occurring levels of the heavy metals.

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said science and engineering should drive public policy decisions.

“Water in neighbors’ wells is just as safe or better than the public water supplies millions of people in the nation rely on every day,” Culbert said. “These are facts.”

Duke Energy has delivered bottled water to neighbors of coal ash ponds, including Buck Steam Station. Culbert said there are no expected changes to the company’s water delivery.

“We need to be thoughtful about what these families are going through,” she said. “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.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.