- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Deborah Graham doesn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. But one thing is certain: She won’t drink the water coming out of her faucet.

Living 1,000 feet from a Duke Energy coal-ash pond in Salisbury, North Carolina, Ms. Graham had her well water tested in May 2014 for any toxins that may have leaked from the waste dump into her water supply. Her results came back clear.

“I was told I didn’t have anything to worry about, that my property is up on a hill from the pond and water runs downhill,” said Ms. Graham, whose well testing was paid for by Duke and certified by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “I told them, ‘Thank you so much.’ I was so relieved and felt so good about the results I wasn’t concerned about it.”

For nearly a year afterward, Ms. Graham continued to use her water to drink, cook and bathe. On April 15, though, a letter from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services arrived and sent shock waves through her household. Her well’s water was highly polluted, and not even boiling it would eliminate all the toxins, the letter said.

“I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting it at all because just the previous year I was told everything was OK,” said Ms. Graham, who now uses only bottled water.

The day after the Health and Human Services warning, she received a letter from Duke Energy saying it wasn’t to blame for the pollution.

“I don’t know who to believe or what to do. I don’t think I can trust anybody,” Ms. Graham said in an interview with The Washington Times.

Ms. Graham is one of many residents living near the 32 coal-ash ponds spread throughout North Carolina that store waste from coal-fired power plants.

One of those ponds, operated by Duke, gave way in February 2014 and spilled 39,000 tons of the sludge into the Dan River. It was the third-largest such spill in the nation’s history.

The accident and subsequent response by regulators has created fear and confusion among customers of the Charlotte-based energy giant, the largest electric-power-holding company in the country.

First, the hundreds of residents living near the ponds are unsure whether their water is safe to drink.

That confusion stems from Duke’s admitted environmental mismanagement of its coal-ash waste and the state’s bureaucratic ineptitude in conducting water testing and changing its health standards in the middle of the process on what constitutes safe drinking water.

The second concern has wider repercussions: that uncertain and changing requirements regulators are imposing on Duke Energy may lead to costly electricity rate increases for millions of customers.

State lawmakers last year passed the North Carolina Coal Ash Management Act, requiring Duke to pay all the cleanup costs for the spill, which are estimated at $2 billion to $10 billion.

Paying the tab

If the utility is required to dig up the ash from every pond statewide and truck it to a lined landfill statewide — the most expensive option — the tab would approach $10 billion and the costs would have to be passed to consumers, company officials warn.

As part of the law, Duke has to test the well water of residents who live within 1,500 feet of its 14 coal-fired power plants to help the state decide which of Duke’s coal-ash ponds should be closed first and which wells are contaminated.

State regulators set the standards on what pollutants were to be included in the well-water testing and what levels are considered unsafe. Those elements and levels have been revised repeatedly and are set higher than federal standards for drinking water.

That means all customers who receive letters from the state Department of Health and Human Services saying their water is undrinkable by state standards could consume the water under federal standards. That fact — which Duke repeatedly highlights — confuses residents further.

When Ms. Graham’s well was tested in May 2014, the state didn’t require vanadium — a constituent of nearly all coal and petroleum crude oils — to be part of the test. The coal ash bill that passed in September included vanadium in the water testing, so state regulators in February returned to Ms. Graham’s home to perform another round of testing.

Two months later, Ms. Graham found out her water exceeded the state’s advised levels for vanadium, and officials advised her not to cook or drink with it.

North Carolina regulators also revised their health risk standards identifying which elements may cause health concerns.

Last year, Health and Human Services Department toxicologist Kenneth Rudo assessed a health risk for vanadium at 18 parts per billion. This year, he changed the assessment to 0.3 ppb. So a well that passed testing at 7 ppb for vanadium last year would have failed this year. There is no federal safety level for vanadium.

Health risk levels for hexavalent chromium — a carcinogen and industrial waste made famous by Erin Brockovich’s fight in Hinkley, California — also have been set high in the North Carolina water testing.

There is no federal level for hexavalent chromium, so state regulators use the level for total chromium, which is set at 10 ppb. Federal regulators have set the level for total chromium at 100 ppb.

The state Health and Human Services Department decided on a 0.07 ppb health assessment risk level for hexavalent chromium.

Average hexavalent chromium levels recorded in the town of Ms. Brockovich’s Hinkley, where cancer diagnoses were disproportionate for the population, were recorded as 1.19 ppb — 17 times higher than North Carolina’s limit — with an estimated peak of 3.09 ppb.

North Carolina’s 0.07 ppb level for hexavalent chromium is so trace that only two of its nine labs can detect it. Bureaucrats were unaware of that fact until the water testing began.

“We received a postcard in the mail that we could choose what lab we wanted to do our water testing,” said Amy Brown, who lives near a coal-ash pond in Belmont, North Carolina. “I just chose one, picked a name, sent it back in. A few weeks later, they arranged to come out and get samples of my water.”

Ms. Brown received her results: Her water tested high for vanadium and was therefore undrinkable, but there was another caveat. The state recommended that she have another sample tested in another month for hexavalent chromium. The independent lab she selected was unable to test for that element.

Now she is waiting to find out whether she and her family have been drinking traces of the cancer-linked toxin since they moved into their home nine years ago. She had her water resampled last month.

“We could check what company we wanted to come and do our water, but there was only one on our list that could measure correctly the levels of hexchrom and we didn’t know it,” Ms. Brown said. “I checked wrong. Now, whenever I turn on the faucet, I turn on fear.”

Of the 285 wells sampled in North Carolina so far, 265, or 93 percent, have failed to meet state groundwater standards. Duke is delivering bottled water to the affected homes.

Battle over standards

In a June 30 town hall meeting of Salisbury residents, state officials and Duke, utility executives said the state’s levels for hexavalent chromium and vanadium were too stringent.

“You have to make your own decisions, but from all the [state] data I have seen, I would have no problem with drinking your well water,” Duke toxicologist Lisa Bradley told the crowd, according to a report in The Charlotte Observer. She said adults consume many times the vanadium limit through the food they eat.

However, Mr. Rudo from the Health and Human Services Department defended the screening levels.

“There really is no safe level of exposure to a genetoxic carcinogen, and that’s what hex chrome is,” Mr. Rudo said.

The department declined to make Mr. Rudo available for comment to The Times.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources acknowledges confusion with the levels but said it is the job of the Health and Human Services Department to determine risk.

“We’re not saying anybody is wrong. There’s different levels of risk associated with the different levels,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at the Environment and Natural Resources Department. “We’re not medical health professionals or use health risk determinations; we just turn the results over to DHHS for them to decide.”

Duke says there has been confusion with what element levels are safe to consume, but it is committed to working through the process. It also maintains that all the well water is drinkable by federal standards.

“This clearly has been complex and confusing for plant neighbors,” said Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for Duke. “Our focus is on sharing clear and accurate information throughout this process.”

Still unclear is who or what is responsible for the contamination. Although Duke may be to blame for higher levels of boron and other sulfates directly linked to coal ash, vanadium is present naturally throughout North Carolina, and hexavalent chromium may be too.

To help clear up the confusion, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is sampling wells near Duke’s power plants and testing water in wells far from the coal-ash ponds to determine what minerals may be natural parts of North Carolina’s own bedrock — something that wasn’t done before state regulators determined what element levels to use.

Six of the seven wells tested so far show vanadium levels above the North Carolina standards, state hydrogeologist Bruce Parris said at the June 30 town hall gathering, and five of the seven had hexavalent chromium higher than the state level.

Duke continues to conduct groundwater assessments around its plants to help determine the source of potential contaminants.

State groundwater test results are expected later this summer. If Duke is found to be responsible for the pollution, the utility said, it will pay for a safe, permanent water source to the residents affected.

If the metals are found to be occurring naturally, the families affected by the contamination will be on their own.

That’s a prospect Ms. Graham hasn’t considered, although she has consulted a lawyer. When asked what she would do if Duke wasn’t responsible for the water pollution, her voice cracked.

“What are we going to do? None of us can sell our homes because we don’t have water. Our home values have gone down,” she said. “There’s a stigma with anybody who lives around a Duke plant because everybody knows you don’t have clean water. I’m speechless as to what we’re going to do if that’s the case.”

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