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State reversal on hexavalent chromium in well water an outrage

North Carolinians should be outraged at the recent stunt by the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), to reverse “do not drink” recommendations made by the same agencies last year to private well users near Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps. Initially, DHHS warned residents within 1500 feet of these dumps whose water had more than 0.07 parts per billion hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen when consumed or inhaled, not to drink their water. This non-regulatory ‘health screening level’ was determined after careful review of the latest scientific health risk information on hexavalent chromium (also known as Chromium-6) by public health professionals and state toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo as presenting an ‘acceptable risk.’

Rudo himself acknowledged last year that for carcinogens like hexavalent chromium which act by changing DNA, “there really is no safe level of exposure.”

Larmie Short well water

Residents like Larmie Short of Mooresboro just want water they know for sure is safe to drink.

Less than a year later, the state is sending the same households letters stating their water is now safe, and residents obviously have questions – what has changed? It’s not the water, and it’s not the science – in fact, to date, this announcement hasn’t been accompanied by any statements from qualified professionals in DHHS, all the more reason why communities suspect it is a strategic move by the state to shield Duke Energy from responsibility for providing safer drinking water to neighboring residents.

State Health Director Randall Williams and Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder give two reasons for the sudden flip-flop on recommendations. First, they say, the EPA and other states in the southeast do not regulate hexavalent chromium in drinking water. And second, they have compared the hexavalent chromium values in well water to levels found in public water supplies and concluded “your well is as safe as the majority of public water systems in the country.” None of this is new information, and some of it is a major stretch of the facts, resulting in a distressing situation for residents who still live in fear of what contamination in their wells may be doing to their families’ health, unsure of who they can trust.

EPA and state regulations of hexavalent chromium in drinking water

A desire by North Carolina officials to backpedal on earlier recommendations for hexavalent chromium, as well as vanadium, became apparent as early as last summer. One section of the massive regulatory reform bill of 2015, H765, mandated:

SECTION 4.8A.(a) The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, shall study the State’s groundwater standards under 15A NCAC 2L, or State Interim Allowable Maximum Contaminant Levels (IMAC), as applicable, as well as State health screening levels, for hexavalent chromium and vanadium relative to other southeastern states’ standards for these contaminants and the federal maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for these contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act, in order to identify appropriate standards to protect public health, safety, and welfare; the environment; and natural resources. The Department shall also evaluate background standards for these contaminants where they naturally occur in groundwater in the State.

Public health and environmental advocates knew this study was destined to lead to recommendations to weaken the existing guidance on these two contaminants. For one thing, other southeastern states don’t have stronger standards than NC’s groundwater standard of 10 ppb total chromium, and EPA is notorious about lagging behind the science in setting standards, or “MCLs”, for as-yet unregulated substances in drinking water. That’s thanks in part to Safe Drinking Water Act requirements to consider economic and technical feasibility before finalizing standards, which results in weaker standards representing a ‘compromise’ between what is safe for consumption and what is feasible for water treatment plants. Despite firm scientific evidence that drinking water containing hexavalent chromium can cause cancer and other health effects, the only current standard for chromium in public drinking water supplies is the total chromium MCL of 100ppb – more than 1000 times higher than DHHS’ original health screening level of 0.07ppb.

If the NC study had looked outside the southeast, it would have found the example of California, where the terrible health experiences of well users around the PG&E plant in Hinkley, CA before 2000 (made famous by the film and real life story of Erin Brockovich) shed light on the high toxicity of the hexavalent form of chromium in particular, spurring a burst of research. CA set the nation’s first Public Health Goal of 0.02 ppb for hexavalent chromium in drinking water in 2011, and just a few years ago set an MCL of 10ppb — still 500 times higher than the public health goal, but at least a start at regulating the substance).

And yet none of these comparisons change the reasoning behind DHHS’ original determination of the 0.07 ppb health screening level, based on the most up-to-date public health information, such as the cancer risks presented in the table below. Why are officials disregarding the recommendations of the professional toxicologists and epidemiologists on their staff, whose job is to understand the science and use it to protect public health?

Comparing well water results with hexavalent chromium in public water systems

Hexavalent chromium falls under EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. Data from periodic monitoring of public water systems from the past two years does indicate a widespread problem with hexavalent chromium showing up in public water supplies, if anything indicating we do need state and federal drinking water standards to catch up to the latest science. The Environmental Working Group issued a report in 2010 raising alarms about this trend, and urging swift action by the EPA to regulate hexavalent chromium.

Reference - standards and thresholds for CrVI

Yet Tom Reeder has told state legislators well water near coal ash dumps is safer than water in major NC cities such as Charlotte – something a glance at the numbers just doesn’t support, at least not for many of the wells near these sites. The average amount of hexavalent chromium found in wells near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont is nearly 13 times the highest amount detected in the City of Charlotte’s water supply. More than 100 of the wells tested for hexavalent chromium were more than 14 times the original health screening level of 0.07ppb, with the highest value, at Buck Steam Station, over 300 times higher (22.3 parts per billion)! Yet the state appears to be treating all these wells the same, as though they were right at the 0.07ppb level, when telling residents that their water is now, suddenly, safe to drink.

DEQ and DHHS finally announced their decision to abandon their previous public health approach at a meeting about a separate, but related, issue – the discovery of high levels of hexavalent chromium in the Colon Road area of Lee County, NC – an area where Duke plans (against the opposition of local residents) to put a large coal ash dump, but where no coal ash yet has been moved. When the substance was discovered during baseline testing, the county looked to DHHS’ example and compared the well results to the 0.07 ppb screening level that had been used for wells near coal ash sites, issuing its own ‘do not drink’ recommendations. The source of hexavalent chromium in the area is still being investigated, but some evidence points to coal ash from the Cape Fear plant being dumped by the old brick plant for use in the bricks, used as fill in one of the roads in the area, or disposed of in one of the abandoned clay pits nearby.

The tragic situation in Lee County just goes to show how much work there is to be done to monitor hexavalent chromium and protect North Carolinians – both private well users and those on public water supplies – from its health impacts. The burning of coal is just one of many industrial processes that can introduce chromium in its hexavalent form into the environment. But the state has taken the discovery of hexavalent chromium in Lee County as an opportunity, not to start the process of addressing the problem, but to turn away from residents and leave folks with no answers, but plenty of questions.

Debra Baker

Debra Baker, 56, Jim Mitchem, 61, and Bill Collins, 61, are among residents near the Allen Steam Station in Belmont. Image Credit: Charlotte Observer

Debra Baker (pictured, left) lives next to Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen Plant in Belmont. She was told almost a year ago that her water was unsafe to drink due to elevated levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium. Baker’s well tested 13 times higher than the screening level for hexavalent chromium. “I absolutely do not feel safe,” says Baker, “Dr. Rudo, the state toxicologist has personally called me and told me not to drink my water. My well is surrounded by coal ash, so no, I don’t feel that it’s suddenly alright to drink my water just because DEQ and DHHS are suddenly rescinding their do not drink orders. This makes me very afraid for my son and myself. I feel like this decision is just another slap in the face from regulators who are supposed to be protecting us.

Explore more resources about hexavalent chromium and the state’s outrageous decision:

News coverage:

Water sampling data:

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