Regulators announce new 'science panel' review of drinking water standard after WBTV investigation

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Regulators at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced  a panel of scientists will review a decision to not set a limit for how much of a toxic chemical commonly associated with coal ash is acceptable in drinking water.

The review was announced in a hastily-called conference call Wednesday evening, just a day after WBTV unearthed a memo drafted by health scientists at NCDHHS taking issue with the decision to not set a limit for the toxic chemical known as hexavalent chromium.

Regulators, scientists, environmentalists and residents who live near Duke Energy's coal ash ponds have debated the acceptable level for hexavalent chromium in drinking water for more than two years.

The debate started in 2015 when state regulators sent letters to roughly 170 homes near coal ash ponds to not drink their well water.

The letters were sent to homes whose well water was found to have a hexavalent chromium level of 0.07 parts per billion or greater.

At least one home near the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury had a hexavalent chromium level of more than 30 parts per billion.

Those 'do not drink' letters were rescinded in an abrupt decision by leaders at DHHS and DEQ appointed by then-Governor Pat McCrory.

Previous Story: Neighbors, watchdogs question state's decision on water safety

State lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring Duke Energy to pay to provide permanent alternate water sources to those homes with high levels of the toxic chemical; either by running water lines or providing filtration systems.

Late last week, DEQ announced operational standards the filtration systems provided by Duke must meet. Those standards did not include a limit for hexavalent chromium, opting instead to set a limit for total chromium - the amount of both hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium, which is not toxic in small amounts - in the water.

DEQ's decision was met with disagreement from career health scientists at DHHS' Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch. At least two employees put their name on a draft memo outlining their disagreement with DEQ's proposed standard in a memo drafted in April 2017.

Previous Story: DEQ adopts new drinking water standard over DHHS scientists' objections

Among other things, the memo said DEQ's total chromium standard "is not health protective from exposure to a mutagenic carcinogen such as hexavalent chromium."

WBTV first published the draft memo on Tuesday evening. By Wednesday evening, senior officials at DEQ and DHHS convened a conference call with reporters to announce the total chromium standard would be reviewed by a state science panel.

During the call, DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman explained the plan to have the standard reviewed by the science panel had been in the works since March. But Holman could not explain why the review was not included in a series of materials released by the department last Friday announcing the new operational standards.

Holman said the science panel would review the appropriate standard for hexavalent chromium even as DEQ implemented the new standard announced last week.

"I think it was really just to let everyone know that we had made a decision on those performance standards to give Duke Energy some guidance on the water filtration system," Holman explained in Wednesday night's call.

Holman said the operational standard that only limits total chromium will be the legal standard until or unless the science panel determines a separate standard for hexavalent chromium is appropriate. Duke must install its filtration systems by October 2018 under the law passed by the legislature last year.

"We're really just balancing statutory deadlines," Holman said when asked why DEQ issued a standard that it planned to have reviewed after the fact. "We felt like we needed to get some guidance out to the company so they can proceed with the design. But we believe that we need to take up this issue of the emerging - or newer - health data to determine whether the state's current groundwater standard needs to be revised."

Regulators on Wednesday night's call said the two agencies had been slow to release the updated information to residents and the media because of the efforts to respond to a separate environmental emergency near Wilmington.

The science panel's review of an appropriate hexavalent chromium standard will seek to bridge to wildly different standards that will be used by DEQ and DHHS.

DHHS is still advising residents whose water wells have hexavalent chromium levels of 0.07ppb or greater to not drink their water. That means well water treated with a Duke Energy-supplied filtration system that only filters to 10ppb would still not meet DHHS' health standard.

Holman said DEQ is still working to finalize a list of members to sit on the science review panel. She said the work should be completed by the end of 2017.

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