SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Residents in Salisbury and Belmont continue to be concerned over a decision last month by state regulators to reverse a 'do not drink' order issued nearly a year ago.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources—which has since been renamed Department of Environmental Quality—issued the 'do not drink' orders in April 2015 to residents who drew drinking water from 240 wells located near coal-powered plants owned by Duke Energy.
At the time, regulators said the well water contained elevated levels of a potentially toxic element called hexavalent chromium, among others.
But the 'do not drink' order was lifted by DHHS and DEQ in March 2016.
Top regulators at both state agencies have defended the decision by pointing to a lack of clear federal standards for hexavalent chromium and comparing the water coming from the wells to that supplied through public systems. They say their decision was based on science and supported by facts.
Residents and environmental watchdogs question both the science and facts the state has pointed to, though, as being misinterpreted and misconstrued.
What is hexavalent chromium?
Chromium can occur naturally in the environment and takes two form: trivalent chromium (chromium-3) and hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, chromium-3 is essential to breaking down certain metabolic processes in the human body. It is much less toxic, the EPA says, than chromium-6, which is a known carcinogen when inhaled.
The EPA is currently finalizing a years-long study that points to chromium-6 to be carcinogenic when ingested orally, too.
"A 2007 National Toxicology Program study found that rats and mice that consumed drinking water, with chromium-6, formed a significant number of tumors. This study indicated that cancer risk from ingestion of chromium-6 is a chronic one, not an acute one," the City of Raleigh noted in a document detailing the history of chromium-6. "Chronic health risk levels are calculated assuming 30 years of exposure in a 70-year lifespan with a person drinking two liters of water per day."
Debate over the toxicity of chromium-6 was brought to the national stage by the movie Erin Brockovich, which highlighted a town in California whose drinking water had been contaminated by hexavalent chromium.
Currently, federal regulators only have a standard for the amount of total chromium—both chromium-3 and chromium-6—in drinking water. That standard is 100 parts per billion.
The EPA is expected to put forth new limits for specifically hexavalent chromium by the end of 2016.
State uses 'an abundance of caution'
The 'do not drink' letters issued in April 2015 were sent to 240 households that get their water from wells located near Duke Power plants, including the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury and the Allen Steam Station in Belmont.
State regulators now say the letters were sent out of an abundance of caution and used standards that are neither federally recognized nor used by any other state in the country.
At the time the letters were sent, regulators said the orders resulted from testing mandated by state law.
"If your attached (report) includes a recommendation that your water not be used for drinking or cooking, please note that the recommendation was made using a statistical risk threshold of one additional case of cancer in a population for 1 million people who were exposed at that level over a lifetime," the letter explained.
Using the one-in-1 million standard, the state determined the acceptable level for hexavalent chromium was .07 ppb.
The letters shocked some homeowners, like Marcos Albarran, whose well contains more than 22ppb hexavalent chromium, according to test results supplied by state regulators.
Albarran and his family of four children moved to a house near the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury in 2010 and had no reservations about drinking the water from a well he shared with a neighbor.
"I thought the water well was safe. i thought that was the safest water to drink," Albarran said. "I was scared for my children."
In the wake of the order not to drink the water, Duke Energy began paying to supply the affected households with bottled water.
A walk around Albarran's house now takes you across stacks of cases of bottled water. He says the constant need to move the heavy cases has taken a toll on an injury he suffered at work that put him on disability.
But, in the year since his family started drinking the bottled water, Albarran said he's noticed a positive change in his health.
Albarran said he suffered rashes across his body for years. "My arms, my lower legs; I thought it was poison ivy or poison oak," he said. "I treated it with medicine but nothing worked."
His kids, too, suffered from chronic health problems; mostly upset stomachs.
"I didn't know what could be causing it until they tested the water and we knew what was going on," Albarran said. "Once we started drinking the (bottled) water, a month later the rashes went away. My kids don't get as sick anymore."
Now, Albarran bristles at the thought of having to drink the water out of his tap again. He blames Governor Pat McCrory, who oversees DHHS and DEQ as governor, for the decision to rescind the 'do not drink' letter.
"How does he expect me to give this water to my children and poison them?" Albarran asked. "That's wrong."
Regulators say decision based on facts, science
DEQ's Assistant Secretary for the Environment, Tom Reeder, explained the state's decision to rescind the 'do not drink' letters in remarks to the Lee County Board of Commissioners in early March.
"You have to stick to the facts. You have to stick to science," Reeder told commissioners.
"You can have up to 100 ppb of hexavalent chromium in your water and still be considered safe to drink," he said, referring to the EPA's current standard for total chromium.
In an interview with On Your Side Investigates, Reeder reiterated his belief that wells like the one Albarran shares with his neighbor—with hexavalent chromium levels of more than 22 ppb—provided safe drinking water.
"It complies with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act," Reeder said when asked whether Albarran's well water is safe.
Reeder's counterpart at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, agreed.
"We really didn't feel like the health risk warranted the 'do not drink' recommendations, specifically when you look at their presence in other water supplies," Williams said.
Williams said another factor in the decision to rescind the 'do not drink' letters was a survey of other states' standards for hexavalent chromium. He said no other state enforced a .07 ppb limit for chromium-6.
"We're basically left with a situation now where we have probably 240 well owners who are held to a standard that no one else in the country, really, is held to," Williams said.
When On Your Side Investigates asked Williams why his agency didn't wait until the EPA's new standards are released at the end of the year, he said the state's internal review of its standards came sooner.
"The question is not only is the EPA going to weigh in in December but we have 49 other states that have not stepped in and said 'North Carolina, your level of .07 ppb is something we want to duplicate'," he said.
A false comparison
In explaining the decision the declare the well water safe to drink, Williams and Reeder have both said the level of chromium-6 found in the wells near Duke Power plants was comparable to levels found in water supplied by public systems across the state.
"Anyone drinking municipal water in North Carolina is probably drinking water that is at or above the level of these constituents that they are finding in these private wells," Reeder told the Lee County Board of Commissioners in early March.
But local environmental watchdogs say that claim is dubious at best.
"When you look at the people's wells around the coal ash sites, you have tens to even hundreds of times of hexavalent chromium," explained Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper. "The two aren't comparable. To put it in March Madness terms, it's like saying a score of 70-7 is a close game or tie."
Perkins said the .07 ppb standard used in 2015 was derived from a requirement in the North Carolina Administrative Code.
"The state is changing what the standard is even though state law says .07ppb is the highest standard allowable," Perkins said. "By the state's own definition of suitable water to drink, it is not suitable to drink."
But, in an interview with On Your Side Investigates this week, Reeder and Williams stood by their claims that the well water is just as safe as other drinking water across the state.
"You all have said that the level in these wells is the same as in the public drinking water. Can we agree that that's just not a true statement," On Your Side Investigates asked.
"No, I would never agree to that," Reeder said. "I mean, what public drinking water are you talking about?"
The EPA asked water systems to begin testing specifically for hexavalent chromium through a voluntary program that began in 2014. Nearly 150 water systems participated in the voluntary program, which collected samples over a one year period.
The data released by the EPA shows the average level of hexavalent chromium across the participating public water systems in North Carolina was .15ppb, more than 100 times less than the level of chromium-6 in Marcos Albarran's well.
"If we look at water levels around the state, how many of them have a level that's equal to or greater than 21ppb?" On Your Side Investigates asked Reeder.
"They're all under 100ppb and that's the federal Safe Drinking Water Act level," he responded.
"That's not the question… How many public water systems in the state have hexavalent chromium at that level?" we asked again.
"I thought the question was whether the water was safe to drink. The water is safe to drink. It complies with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act," Reeder said again.
Neither Reeder nor Williams could identify one water system with a level of hexavalent chromium approaching levels found in the wells near Duke coal-powered plants.
Among the nearly 150 water systems that participated in the EPA's voluntary program, the highest average hexavalent chromium level in a public water system was .61ppb. That was at the Bayleaf Master water system, in Raleigh.
Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, said the data speaks for itself.
"I would not drink that water. We have had state officials say that they would not drink that water. So, no, they should not be drinking that water," Perkins said.
Families worry while regulators wait
In an interview with On Your Side Investigates, Williams questioned whether hexavalent chromium had even been proven to cause cancer at all.
"The risk of cancer is based on what?" Reeder asked. "It's based on mice models, not humans. We have, in mice, a causation with hexavalent chromium at levels far exceeding 21."
Williams said more research needed to be conducted until scientists could be sure of a causal link between chromium-6 and cancer.
"In humans, all we have is, really, correlation data from Greece and China from which, we really don't have, even then, causation data because it's a very hard study to do," he said. "As a number, you still have to tie that back into, in humans, do we know that that level is causing cancer?"
But families like Marcos Albarran's say they cannot afford to go back to drinking their well water while more research is conducted.
"I don't know what to do now," he said at the prospect of the supply of bottled water drying up. "If we have to start buying water, it's going to be rough on us."
Albarran and his neighbors say they will continue to fight for clean, safe drinking water.
"He's saying that our water is as safe as city water. I don't believe that. How can that be possible?" Albarran asked.