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State: environmental groups not interested in protecting health

Environmental groups are trying to score political points on coal ash controversy instead of protecting public health, says a spokesperson for N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

A total of 15 environmental groups on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory that asks for an end to confusion over whether well water near coal ash ponds is safe to drink. The letter also asks McCrory to instruct the Department of Environmental Quality and state health officials to listen to scientific experts when setting well water testing standards. A primary reason for the letter is a recent decision to declare hundreds of wells near coal ash ponds safe to drink.

In 2015, most water wells in Dukeville and near coal ash ponds sites across North Carolina were declared unsafe to drink from because of high contaminant levels. The metals hexavalent chromium and vanadium showed up most frequently on tests that exceeded state standards. At the time, scientists based recommendations on a cancer risk of “no more than one in a million,” the environmentalists’ letter states. State officials recently lifted most of the “do not drink” recommendations across the state and raised health standards for vanadium.

Public health officials made the decision to change recommendations. Following the letter sent to McCrory, however, the Department of Environmental Quality tossed out sharply tinged rhetoric defending the change.

“The state’s decisions about how to best protect the environment and public health are firmly rooted in sound science,” said the agency’s Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Crystal Feldman. “The liberal groups launching this coordinated attack are more interested in scoring political points and fundraising than protecting the health and interest of North Carolinians.”

Groups who signed onto the letter include many that have advocated for rapid coal ash cleanup. Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott is among those who signed the letter.

When health officials declared wells unsafe to drink from, the maximum level was 0.3 parts per billion for vanadium. Now, the same standard is 20 parts per billion. Public Health Director Randall Williams cited levels of the same chemicals in municipal water as a reason for the change. In some cases, the contaminants can be found at higher levels in municipal water.

The environmentalists’ letter, however, contends that the state’s toxicologist and other technical experts were left out of the decision-making process to lift “do not drink” recommendations.

Duke Energy also responded to the letter. Company spokeswoman Erin Culbert said she doesn’t agree that state regulators are siding with Duke in raising the standards. Culbert said Duke has been sharing data required by the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act and requested by environmental regulators.

“That has been a separate process from how (the Department of Health and Human Services) calculated health screening levels and guidance the agency has provided on what levels are safe in well water,” Culbert said.

She also reiterated a claim by Duke and others that hexavalent chromium and vanadium occur naturally.

“We will leave water standards to the appropriate state and federal professionals,” she said. “However, plant neighbors’ well water is consistent with other well water across the state and does not exhibit indications of coal ash impacts. This issue was magnified for neighbors near ash basins because those are virtually the only wells in the state that have been tested for hexavalent chromium and vanadium.”

A final item in the letter asks McCrory to listen to concerns from coal ash neighbors who say capping coal ash ponds in place is not a safe solution. Environmentalists and coal ash neighbors have asked that Buck Steam Station’s ponds be declared high priority instead of the current low-to-intermediate priority.

A low-priority designation could allow coal ash to be capped in place. Any other designation requires excavation.

State regulators are collecting public comments about Buck Steam Station until April 18. Comments can be emailed to buckcomments@ncdenr.gov.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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