- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s state health director feared legislators would take away some of his authority before deciding in March to reverse warnings that hundreds of water wells near Duke Energy power plants were too contaminated to use, according to testimony provided by environmentalists Thursday.

Dr. Randall Williams, the health director, was concerned that if the state didn’t reverse its 2015 letter urging residents living hear Duke Energy coal ash pits against drinking their well water, the General Assembly might restrict his division’s authority, according to a deposition state epidemiologists Dr. Megan Davies gave last week.

“There was discussion in the General Assembly about passing legislation to restrict the Division of Public Health’s ability to work in the area of well water,” Davies said under questioning by attorneys in a lawsuit involving the country’s largest electric company, the state Department of Environmental Quality and environmental groups. A trial in the cases over how coal ash has been stored near rivers across the state for decades could be months away.

The state Department of Health and Human Services in March mailed letters to homeowners who draw from 235 wells near Duke coal ash dumps that their water is “as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country.”

What the letters don’t say is that there are no federal standards for the heavy metals vanadium or hexavalent chromium that municipal water systems must meet, environmentalists said.

Davies said she did not believe the letter was consistent with the mission of health and environmental regulators to protect health and safety. State health officials did not determine whether any households had small children or pregnant women, who might be susceptible to ill health effects at lower levels, Davies said.

The letters reverse written warnings sent in April 2015 to the owners of 330 water wells that their well water was too contaminated with vanadium and hexavalent chromium to use. The remaining 95 water wells will continue to carry a “do not drink” warning because of the presence of arsenic, cobalt or other pollutant, the state health agency said.

The intervening 11 months allowed DHHS to study the risk posed by the amounts of vanadium and hexavalent chromium in water wells and determine the earlier warnings were based on a standard much stricter than nearly anyplace else in the country, Williams said in March.

Some wells showed hexavalent chromium levels hundreds of times higher than the state’s initial warning level - a one-in-a-million risk for a person to develop cancer over their lifetime.

“Allowing the affected residents to return to drinking their water is within federal and state guidelines and is consistent with safe drinking water practices across the country,” Department of Health and Human Services communications director Kendra Gerlach said.

Requests to interview Williams or DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer were denied.

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.

State agencies tested 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 concerns about arsenic and heavy metals in the water.

Duke Energy has said that its coal ash pits were not polluting the private wells of surrounding homes.

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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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