- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina is reversing warnings about water that health officials said was too polluted to drink and now reassuring residents who live near pits that hold waste from decades of coal-burning for electricity that their well water is safe.

The state health agency issued written warnings last April to the owners of 330 water wells near eight Duke Energy power plants that their well water was too contaminated with vanadium and hexavalent chromium to use. Now a new letter is being sent to homeowners who draw from 235 of those wells suggesting more confidence in the safety of the water. The remaining 95 water wells will continue to carry a “do not drink” warning because of the presence of arsenic, cobalt or other pollutant, an agency spokeswoman said.

The letter, which the Department of Health and Human services began mailing out Friday, states that the water is “as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country.”

State agencies fanned out to test the groundwater near coal-burning plants owned by the country’s largest electric company after a massive coal-ash spill two years ago. The disaster left a 70-mile stretch of the Dan River coated in toxic sludge and raised about concerns arsenic and heavy metals in the water.

The new guidance from North Carolina health officials reversing the earlier don’t-drink water warning is perplexing residents like Deborah Graham, who lives near Duke Energy’s Buck power plant in Salisbury.

“I kind of feel the state is kind of flip-flopping and now trying to back-peddle to get themselves out of a situation,” Graham said. “I’m not going to drink the water.”

She said she was persuaded by state toxicologist Ken Rudo’s warning last year that the state was being cautious due to the lack of clear research showing how much vanadium and hexavalent chromium - heavy metal elements - is too much.

Rudo is on leave from his toxicology post and declined to discuss the department’s change when contacted by phone. At a Salisbury public meeting last summer, Rudo said the state’s caution was prompted in part because hexavalent chromium can change the body’s DNA in ways that can lead to cancer.

“There really is no safe level of exposure” to a carcinogen like hexavalent chromium, the Salisbury Post reported Rudo as saying.

However, State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams said the Department of Health and Human Services now has more information than it did last year about the risk posed by the amounts of vanadium and hexavalent chromium in the water and determined the warnings weren’t needed. The warnings were based on a standard much stricter than nearly anyplace else in the country.

“In an abundance of caution, we purposely set very cautious levels” last year, Williams said. “We now think it’s appropriate to drink the water.”

Hexavalent chromium is a human carcinogen when inhaled and oral exposure can harm the liver, kidney and other organs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Vanadium’s cancer and other health risks are less well known. Both can occur naturally in soil or as a result of industrial byproducts like coal ash.

Duke Energy has said all along that its coal-ash pits were not polluting the private wells of surrounding homes. The company applauded the state’s latest move. Spokeswoman Paige Sheehan wrote in an email that “the evidence demonstrates that the water is safe, just as safe or better than the public water supplies millions of people in the nation rely on.”

The company has delivered bottled water for most of the past year to about 380 households to give them “peace of mind while more research was done,” Sheehan wrote. Duke will continue delivering water to neighbors near the power plants where wells were tested, Sheehan said. They include 214 neighbors of the Allen plant in Belmont and 80 homes near the Buck plant in Salisbury.

The company is providing water to residents near most of the plants where toxic coal ash is buried. They include Duke Energy’s Asheville, Belews Creek, Cliffside, Marshall, Roxboro and Sutton facilities.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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