Déjà vu: Controversy over safe drinking water, coal ash, prompts DEQ to appoint science panel

(Photo: Creative Commons)

T he NC Department of Environmental Quality, facing criticism over its new performance standards for contaminants in drinking water, said today that Secretary Michael Regan will convene a science advisory board to make recommendations on those levels based on new health data.

Last Friday, DEQ announced these standards for levels of hexavalent chromium (also known as Chromium 6) and vanadium for water filtration systems that Duke Energy is planning to install in some homes near coal ash ponds. The affected homes are near sites including Roxboro, Mayo and Belews Creek.

However, DEQ’s standards for Chromium 6 are 140 times higher than the levels it and the Department of Health and Human Services set in 2016: The new standard is 10 parts per billion for Chromium 6, compared with just 0.07 ppb last year. That is equivalent to a 1 in 1 million cancer risk.

For vanadium, it is 33 times higher — 10 parts per billion — compared with 0.3 ppb in 2016.

These thresholds are known as “performance standards.” These are allowable levels of a contaminant, subject to regulation. The Environmental Management Commission adopts these standards for groundwater, which is a source of drinking water for more than half of North Carolinians.

Performance standards are different from health screening standards. These are levels of a contaminant in drinking water which no known adverse health effects would be expected. Health screening levels are not enforceable and are updated when new relevant data is released.

There is no federal standard for Chromium 6 in groundwater or drinking water, although the EPA, at least under the Obama administration, was studying its health effects as part of an emerging contaminant program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated the contaminant a “well-established carcinogen.”

Last year, state epidemiologist Megan Davies and a state toxicologist Ken Rudo both recommended that the groundwater and drinking water level for Chromium 6 be set at 0.07 ppb. As NCPW reported last summer, Rudo  said that 10 ppb carries a cancer risk, even though some states consider that level safe, according to a deposition taken by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Regan has not yet appointed the board. However, DEQ said it will include scientists and experts in toxicology, epidemiology and other public health disciplines. The panel will make any recommendations about water quality regulations to the EMC, which has the authority to adopt new groundwater standards. The meetings will be public. After the board has finished its review, DEQ will make a final decision on the performance standard for chromium.

Three law firms — Wallace & Graham, Bryan Brice and Baron & Budd — are representing hundreds of people who live near the Duke Energy plants.  Mona Lisa Wallace issued a statement saying that, “While we appreciate other efforts the DEQ has taken to address the coal ash problems, we believe the newly-announced standards are far too lenient to Duke.  They would allow Duke to install water filtration systems that could contaminate at levels far above what hook-ups to municipal water would provide. We believe all Duke coal ash neighbors and their families are entitled to municipal water hook-ups and clean water.”

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, Duke Energy is required to provide permanent replacement water supplies for eligible families. These families live within half a mile of the leaky coal ash ponds. Some families will receive hookups to public water systems. But for many others, Duke insists on installing water filtration systems because the utility says running public water lines out to these homes would be too expensive.


Here is the text of today’s DEQ announcement:

 RALEIGH – DEQ Secretary Michael Regan is directing a state panel to provide science-based guidance that can be used to address the recently announced performance standard for chromium in groundwater.
Regan is expanding the scope of the Secretary’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) on Toxic Air Pollutants to advise the agency and the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) on any appropriate revisions to the performance standard for chromium. Scientific experts with DEQ and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will work together with the panel as it evaluates new health data.
DEQ issued performance standards for chromium and other coal ash-related constituents based on what is required by state groundwater regulations and the Coal Ash Management Act. Duke Energy has until October 2018 to install the filtration systems in eligible homes near Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash facilities. 
The performance standards DEQ issued for water filtration systems are based on enforceable, regulatory concentrations of a contaminant. DHHS has established a separate health goal to help private well owners near coal ash ponds understand potential health risks and options to reduce their exposure. The health goal is a non-enforceable concentration representing the level at which no more than one case of cancer per 1 million people would be anticipated over an entire lifetime of exposure. Because health goals are not regulatory, they can be updated frequently and rapidly with new relevant health science data. 
“We recognize the widespread community interest and concerns about these performance standards,” Regan said.
“In conjunction with the issuance of the performance standards, I am directing the Secretary’s Science Advisory Board to evaluate more recent health data on hexavalent chromium and provide a public forum to address these important issues and provide recommendations that could result in any necessary changes to state groundwater standards.
“Our goal is to ensure that every family in North Carolina has access to safe, clean drinking water.”
The SAB is made up of experts in toxicology, epidemiology and other public health disciplines. Regan soon will appoint new members based on their scientific expertise. The panel will be asked to make recommendations for any appropriate changes to water quality regulations to the EMC, which has the authority to adopt new groundwater standards. This science panel will conduct business in an open forum to allow for public input as they are considering the latest research and will offer much-needed peer review of available scientific data. At the conclusion of the SAB review, DEQ will make a final decision on the performance standard for chromium. 

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