Regulators recinded 'do not drink' letters despite toxicologist's objection

Toxicologist objected to water safety claim

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - State regulators with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality told residents living near coal-powered plants their water was safe to drink over objections from the state's toxicologist.

Regulators sent letters to more than 200 people living near coal-powered plants owned by Duke Energy in June 2015 warning them not to drink their water because it contained elevated levels of toxic chemicals.

Specifically, health officials and NCDHHS found water wells near Duke coal ash facilities contained elevated levels of a substance called hexavalent chromium, the same toxin that was the subject of the movie Erin Brockovich.

The state's toxicologist, Dr. Ken Rudo, had determined water that contained more than .07ppb of hexavalent chromium was unsafe to drink. Tests conducted by the state found one neighbor who lived near the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury to have a water well with 22ppb hexavalent chromium.

Recent tests conducted by On Your Side Investigates of water wells owned by neighbors who live a half-mile or more away from the Cliffside Steam Station in western Cleveland County found two thirds of the wells tested to have hexavalent chromium levels exceeding .07ppb. One well contained more than nine times that amount.

Officials with Duke Energy, the company that owns the power facilities and maintains the coal ash ponds, deny coal ash is the cause behind any elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in nearby wells.

"I can say for certain the ash basins around the state are not affecting people's wells," Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said in a recent interview with On Your Side Investigates.

"You're saying that coal ash contaminants have nothing to do with the coal ash a mile down the road?" On Your Side Investigates asked. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying," Culbert replied.

This March, nearly a year after the 'do not drink' letters were sent, regulators at NCDHHS and NCDEQ sent a second letter telling residents their water was safe to drink.

In the wake of the letters, a top regulator with DEQ told On Your Side Investigates that the wells contained the same levels of hexavalent chromium as public water supplies around the state. An analysis of water data for public water systems across the state found that claim to be false.

New testimony made public in a legal filing by Duke Energy Tuesday shows the 'OK to drink' letters were sent this spring despite objects from Rudo, the state's toxicologist.

A portion of Rudo's deposition transcript - taken in a case against Duke Energy filed by environmental advocates seeking to shut down the company's coal ash ponds - was part of a motion to keep Rudo's testimony sealed from public view.

"I take it from what you have testified to this morning that the primary area or the primary reason for your disagreement over the withdrawal of the 'do not drink' letters was the .07 part per billion screening level for hexavalent chromium, is that right?" an attorney for Duke Energy asked Rudo.

"I think that the – I think the primary reason for my disagreement with it is that, number one, we had already gone through an extensive months long vetting process to reach consensus, as we talked about this morning, between the two departments on how to protect these folks in these areas," Rudo responded.

Later in the portions of Rudo's deposition filed by Duke Energy along with its motion, Rudo said officials at DEQ - which, at the time, was called DENR - pushed to insert language into a health risk evaluation form regarding coal ash contaminants that went out while he was on vacation.

A spokeswoman for NCDHHS did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Copyright 2016 WBTV. All rights reserved.