Brock’s bill could prevent state from issuing health advisories

Published 12:10 am Thursday, May 5, 2016

SALISBURY — One of Rowan County’s state legislators has introduced a measure that’s been called a “slap in the face” to Dukeville residents.

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-34, is a primary sponsor of a bill that would prevent state environmental regulators from issuing health advisories for substances that don’t already have testing standards. The change could prevent health advisories from being issued for a substance that resulted in dozens of wells near Buck Steam Station being declared unsafe — hexavalent chromium.

For wells in Dukeville and near other coal ash ponds, the testing level for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, was 0.07 parts per billion. It was determined after research by state scientists, but isn’t considered to be a federal or state standard. Whether it’s thousands of times higher than state standards or just above, state regulators wouldn’t be able to issue a health advisory for the levels of hexavalent chromium in Dukeville’s water wells under Brock’s legislation.

Dukeville resident Deborah Graham said Brock’s bill doesn’t help neighbors of coal ash ponds, who were told more than a year ago their water was unsafe to drink. State officials later reversed course, lifted a “do not drink” advisory and said the well water was as safe as most municipal systems. Graham said she’s been told that the bill “doesn’t do anything.”

“If it does nothing, then why even bring it to the floor?” Graham asked. “The fact is that the bill does not protect the well owners nor does it protect the water. What it does is protect the people in Raleigh.”

She said Dukeville residents just want clean water. Brock’s bill effectively hides information from well owners, she said.

“The bill does not do us any favors,” she said. “It’s just another slap in the face.”

When asked about the measure, Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman echoed Graham’s sentiments — that state leaders could effectively hide information from the public if the bill passed.

“I think the public and North Carolina has every reason to be concerned given the contents of this proposal,” he said.

Brock counters that his bill is misunderstood. The measure is intended to ensure state government agencies are communicating with each other. Municipal water systems, for example, are regulated through the Department of Environmental Quality, while the Department of Health and Human Services determined health standards for wells near coal ash ponds. Brock said the bill isn’t intended to be a “gag order” on environmental regulators.

“Some people are trying to make it a big deal, but the bottom line is we’re trying to make sure everyone is communicating with one another,” he said. “I understand that a lot of people are scared, and I would be worried too. It didn’t help that government agencies were not talking to one another.”

A reason for the bill, Brock said, was a decision by state officials to lift “do not drink” recommendations from wells near coal ash ponds. He reiterated a statement that’s been cited a reason for lifting the recommendation — that well water near coal ash ponds is as safe as municipal water — and compared the initial decision to declare water unsafe to yelling fire in a movie theater after smelling smoke.

In Salisbury’s case, Brock’s statement doesn’t quite match up with water quality reports.

Tests in Dukeville have revealed levels of hexavalent chromium higher than 20 parts per billion. The median level of hexavalent chromium in Dukeville is greater than the state testing level. By comparison, the median level in Salisbury-Rowan Utilities’ system is just above the state standard, but the highest level of hexavalent chromium doesn’t rise above 0.13 parts per billion.

“Anyone who tells the public that these wells contain the same levels as public drinking water is intentionally misleading the public,” Holleman said. “The state government’s leadership has determined that your water is as safe to drink as most cities and towns across the state. Yet, they know that directly adjacent is the town of Salisbury and that their water supply is thousands of times safer than some of these wells.”

Graham said she has repeatedly tried to call Brock to discuss the bill, but hasn’t received a response directly from him. Graham said she has only talked to various staff members.

Brock said his bill “is just trying to make sure the process that we have isn’t clouded or hampered by bureaucratic red tape.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.