SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - State health and environmental regulators sent conflicting messages regarding standards for the toxic element hexavalent chromium in test results sent in late 2014 to the owners of seven wells near the Buck Steam Station in Rowan County.
The test results were sent in early November 2014 for samples that were collected in October of that year.
Records obtained by On Your Side Investigates show owners for two of the seven wells were told the water in their wells met federal drinking water standards and could be used for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and showering.
Three other wells were deemed to contain water that exceeded federal drinking water standards for pH but was still safe for regular use. One well was deemed to have water exceeding federal drinking water standards for containing elevated levels vanadium.
The results were shared with well owners through health risk evaluation forms prepared and approved by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist with the epidemiology section of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Public Health.
Rudo is the toxicologist at the center of an ongoing controversy surrounding whether Governor Pat McCrory and his staff intervened in deliberations over what language to use on later health risk evaluation forms telling residents who live near coal ash facilities not to drink their well water.
The 'do not drink' letters were sent to well owners near coal ash facilities in June 2015. Duke Energy began supplying residents with bottled water following their letter. A subsequent letter was sent in March 2016 telling well owners it was OK to drink their well water.
In a deposition, part of which was recently made public in a federal court filing, Rudo claimed political appointees within the McCrory administration pushed to include language in the evaluation forms saying elevated levels of hexavalent chromium detected in wells near coal ash ponds across the state met federal drinking water guidelines, even though they did not meet a new state guideline recently developed by Rudo and staff at the epidemiology section.
The new state health standard for hexavalant chromium in drinking water is .07ppb. The federal standard for total chromium—including both trivalent chromium and hexavalent chromium—is 100ppb.
Rudo has said he was summoned to a weekend meeting in which McCrory participated by phone to discuss language about the federal drinking water standard in 'do not drink' letters sent to well owners in late spring 2015. The governor and his staff have denied that accusation.
Wednesday afternoon, top regulators at NCDHHS and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released a joint editorial in which they point to Rudo's approval of the 2014 evaluation forms as contradicting his deposition testimony.
"Rudo doesn't just disagree with other scientists on this subject – he has even contradicted himself. The federal safe drinking water standard for Chromium is 100 parts per billion and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 'assumes that a measurement of total chromium is 100 percent Chromium 6.' Rudo himself recognized this fact in November 2014 when he advised well owners near coal ash ponds that their water was safe to drink because 'your well water meets federal drinking water standards'," Tom Reeder, Assistant Secretary for the Environment at DEQ and Dr. Randall Willams, Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS wrote in Wednesday's editorial.
But additional documents obtained by On Your Side Investigates that were sent with at least one of the 2014 health risk evaluation forms say there is not a federal standard for hexavalent chromium.
The health risk evaluation form for the owners of the well whose water contained an elevated level of vanadium was sent attached to a letter from a hydrogeologist at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which has since been re-named DEQ. The health risk evaluation form was initialed by Rudo and attached to the letter from DENR signed by Bruce Parris.
"The USEPA does not have a drinking water standard specifically for hexavalent chromium but their maximum contaminant level for total chromium in drinking water is 100 ppb," Parris wrote. "The state also does not currently have a specific standard for hexavalent chromium in groundwater however the North Carolina Groundwater Quality Standard of 10 ppb for total chromium is based on conservative protective calculations which assume that the toxicity effects are all derived from hexavalent chromium (essentially as if all 10 ppb were hexavalent chromium)."
Pressed for an explanation on the language in Parris' letter saying there is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium - contrary to what the McCrory administration has recently claimed, including in Wednesday's joint editorial - a spokesman for DEQ said the language was not clear.
"The letter was sent by the regional office and should have been worded more accurately to eliminate confusion. Not having a 'specific standard' is not equal to not being protective for a certain constituent in this case," DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher said in an email to On Your Side investigates. "This is clear in the portion of the statement from the paragraph you referenced that says, 'which assume that the toxicity effects are all derived from hexavalent chromium (essentially as if all 10 ppb were hexavalent chromium)' indicates that the standard (both federal and state) are inclusive of hexavalent chromium.
A spokeswoman for NCDHHS said the agency stands by the claims made in its joint editorial.
Rudo declined to comment for this story when reached by phone Wednesday.