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Environmental Quality secretary says state went too far in calling water unsafe

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — North Carolina’s secretary of Environmental Quality says regulators were “a bit strong” when they initially said well water near coal ash ponds was unsafe to drink.

In early 2015, state regulators told hundreds of people near coal ash ponds that their well water was unsafe to drink. That recommendation was based on a one-in-a-million cancer risk.

Now, as questions swirl about whether state government is adequately protecting its residents from potential coal ash contamination, Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart is using another state as an example of how drinking water advisories could work.

In a Tuesday interview with the Salisbury Post, van der Vaart repeatedly referenced health advisories issued in California cities or counties when talking about health hazards associated with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. In cases referenced by DEQ and van der Vaart, California regulators told people that water contained levels of hexavalent chromium that pose an increased risk of cancer but an alternate water supply wasn’t needed.

In California, the advisories provided by DEQ appear to be issued by local governments instead of state regulators. The California advisories also are for water systems instead of individual wells.

When shown the California example, Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said DEQ is “cherry picking” regulations to make up for previous inconsistencies.

In North Carolina’s case, regulators started out by recommending that “well water not be used for drinking or cooking.” Only after telling people their water was unsafe did state officials say water still meets federal standards. North Carolina’s “do not drink” recommendations were based on levels that would lead to one person in a million getting cancer after 70 years.

“I think, simply stated, it was a little bit strong to say one-in-a-million automatically denotes a do not drink recommendation,” van der Vaart said.

He also questioned whether levels of cancer-causing contaminates that were slightly over the one-in-a-million amount required “do not drink” recommendations. However, internal emails show that DEQ employees questioned whether companies should avoid punishment just because contaminant levels are slightly below a health standard. When asked about the emails, van der Vaart characterized them as a “good, robust, scientific debate.”

Outside of politics, the scientific discussion surrounding coal ash for months has been what level of contaminants — such as hexavalent chromium — are safe in drinking water near coal ash ponds. State government now says the appropriate level is 10 times lower than the federal government’s standard, which sits at 100 parts per billion. However, state officials and Duke Energy have repeatedly said water near coal ash ponds meets federal standards as justification for why well water may be OK to drink.

On Tuesday, van der Vaart explicitly said municipal water lines are not being extended to communities near coal ash pits because wells in those communities are unsafe. It’s for “peace of mind.”

The federal level, however, is 25-years-old. Federal regulators also don’t have individual levels for the toxic hexavalent chromium and non-toxic trivalent chromium.

“I think the intention is to clarify the risk to people’s health and we don’t want to point them to a federal standard that isn’t applicable to the current situation,” said Scott, the Yadkin riverkeeper.

In Tuesday’s interview, van der Vaart argued North Carolina is the only state that issues “do not drink” recommendations when levels of cancer-causing chemicals exceed a health standard. He never explicitly mentioned support for changing to the California example, where people are told water doesn’t meet a certain standard, but it’s OK to drink.

Conversations about whether North Carolina enacted a too-strict standard have been ongoing for months. Duke Energy is among the groups making the argument.

“The DHHS screening levels were applied to a few hundred plant neighbors only, and only those well owners were instructed not to drink their water,” said Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert “If those substances were such a health concern, why wouldn’t that level of protection have been appropriate for the thousands of other well owners in the state?”

The company continues to insist that its coal ash ponds don’t affect nearby water wells and that hexavalent chromium in Dukeville water could be naturally occurring.

In Tuesday’s interview, van der Vaart confirmed that higher level employees — “managers” — overruled initial health risk recommendations from a state toxicologist.

He didn’t answer a question about how much input Gov. Pat McCrory has added to debate over whether well water should be considered safe to drink.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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