RALEIGH – State officials revealed Wednesday that the well water at homes that received “do not drink” notifications from the N.C. health agency were most likely caused by naturally occurring levels of vanadium and chromium, levels that data show are exceeded by many wells and most large public water systems in North Carolina. Homeowners who received the notices are left with reduced home values and confusion, as the state also admitted that their water may actually be safer than water provided by many large cities in North Carolina.
Tom Reeder, North Carolina’s assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, explained in a presentation to members of the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission that 89 percent of the 476 wells that the department tested as part of the state’s cleanup of coal ash ponds received notices from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services telling residents not to drink their well water.
The problem, Reeder said, is that the levels DHHS used for chromium and vanadium are so stringent that users of 70 percent of public water systems in the country would be told not to drink their water if DHHS’s standard were used. The level DHHS used for chromium is more than 1,400 times more stringent than the federal standard, and there is no state or federal standard for vanadium. Both elements occur naturally in North Carolina.
“Most of the major cities in the United States, including all major metropolitan areas in North Carolina, provide water every day to their customers that would technically receive a “do not drink” notification from the Department of Health and Human Services,” Reeder said. “That’s because we have so much metal in our groundwater, and so much metal naturally occurring in our water here in North Carolina. All the major metropolitan areas have it.”
Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherford County, said the the health department was too hasty in issuing the ‘do not drink’ recommendations to the homes where the well water testing results may be the same as in background wells. Hager, the House majority leader, worked in Duke Energy power plants for 17 years.
“That’s premature – that’s hurting their land values,” Hager said. “Families fortunes are tied up in their land values. We still need to make sure they have safe drinking water. If their water is as clean as my water 15 miles away, then let’s not degrade their land values for unnecessary reasons.”
And representatives from both state agencies said they are doubtful whether either municipal water or bottled water can consistently meet the extremely tight DHHS thresholds. Data provided by the Division of Water Resources, the state agency that regulates public water systems, show that 92 of the state’s 131 public water systems would fail one of the two thresholds, which DHHS set at 0.03 parts per billion for vanadium and 0.07 ppb for hexavalent chromium, a specific type of chromium that is linked to cancer.
“Under these new circumstances of new substances being tested for, we followed our standard practice of issuing our health risk evaluations with a water use recommendation,” said Dr. Megan Davies, chief epidemiologist for DHHS’s Division of Public Health. “These are recommendations, not regulatory requirements.”
The state’s largest water systems insist their product is safe. Raleigh’s web page states that municipal water is safe to drink and that hexavalent chromium is not a concern in levels as low water that tests under the 100 ppb federal limit.
“While this metal may be detected at very low levels in source waters, people regularly consume or expose themselves to products containing this metal in much higher concentrations (i.e., chrome fixtures, metal pots and other chromed items around the home). The level in which they are found in source waters is very small in comparison,” the site reads.
The state’s coal ash management act required private drinking water wells near coal ash ponds be tested for contamination from the ponds. DEQ also tested wells nearby that were not close to ash ponds for naturally occurring, or “background” levels, of the potential contaminants in coal ash. Coal ash contamination is not as easy to ascribe to a source as chemical contamination, since everything in coal comes from the ground in the first place.
The controversy over the ponds, which have been used to store coal ash for decades, became acute when a drainage pipe under one of the ponds at Duke’s Dan River plant broke in February 2014, spilling millions of gallons of contaminated water and ash into the river. In response, the legislature passed a law to clean up the ponds in August 2014.
Water tests were performed by private labs and sent to DEQ. As they came in from the labs in early 2015, the results were sent to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for analysis of whether the water was safe to drink or not. A second round of testing assayed wells out to 1,500 feet of the ponds.
North Carolina, along with California, have established the lowest groundwater standard in the nation for chromium. Only eight states have groundwater standards for vanadium. Duke Energy will pay for replacement water if the utility is determined to be responsible for contamination above the groundwater standard. The utility is already providing sources of alternative water to households who received a ‘do not drink’ notice, even though DEQ has made no determinations of responsibility yet under the coal ash law.
Several legislators, including Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton), also raised doubts about the usefulness of the levels chosen by DHHS.
“If we’re not testing bottled water, then we may have given some of these folks water that they’re drinking that has more pollutants in it than what they’re drinking from the well that y’all say is unsafe to begin with. Is that correct?”
“That is a possibility, sir,” said Davies.
Note: The units of measurement “parts per billion (ppb)” used in this article are equivalent to the units “micrograms per liter (ug/L)” used in the state data summary.