State toxicologist: Duke Energy lobbied to reverse 'do not drink' order

Published: May. 12, 2016 at 10:45 PM EDT|Updated: May. 13, 2016 at 9:29 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Officials with Duke Energy lobbied state health and environmental officials to reverse a 'do not drink' order sent to residents with water wells near coal-powered plants, according to the a top state health official.

State Epidemiologist Megan Davies made the revelation in a deposition last week.

Davies was being deposed by an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who is involved in a lawsuit filed against the company over its storage of coal ash.

State issued, rescinded 'do not drink letter'

In 2015, state regulators sent letters to 240 households warning them not to drink the water from their wells because it contained potentially toxic levels of the elements hexavalent chromium and/or vanadium.

Duke Energy began supplying bottled water to households that received the 'do not drink' order in April 2015.

A year later, the state sent another letter reversing its 'do not drink' order.

In a March interview with On Your Side Investigates, top officials with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said the order was reversed because the water was no more or less safe than the water delivered by public drinking systems across the state.

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

"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," Dr. Randall Williams, Deputy Secretary of Health Services at NCDHHS.

An analysis of water quality tests reported by public water systems in North Carolina found that claim was false.

State tests found some water wells near Duke coal-powered plants with hexavalent chromium levels as high as 22 parts per billion. The standard that had been used to issue the 'do not drink' letters was .07 ppb.

Data collected by the EPA in 2014 shows the average level of hexavalent chromium in public water systems across the state is .15 ppb, more than 100 times less than the levels found in some affected wells.

Regulators, Duke used same language to justify reversal

But during the March interview, Williams and Tom Reeder, Deputy Secretary for the Environment at DEQ, pointed to the fact that there is not currently a federal limit for hexavalent chromium.

As it stands now, the EPA only has a limit for total chromium—taking into account the levels of both trivalent chromium and hexavalent chromium. Trivalent chromium is used by the human body to aid in digestion.

"We are 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 in March.

That same language was reportedly used by Duke Energy officials in two meetings with top regulators at DHHS and DEQ, according to Davies' testimony.

"In general, the questions were, you know 'why are we looking at hexavalent chromium and vanadium when public water is not held to that standard?'" Davies said Duke representatives asked during a phone call in June 2015.

Davies said Duke representatives expressed a similar concern at an in-person meeting with she and other officials from DHHS and DEQ the following month.

Deposition testimony contradicts DHHS official

Just two days before Davies' deposition was made public, Williams, from DHHS, denied Duke Energy having any influence in the decision to reverse the 'do not drink order' in an interview with Asheville TV station WLOS.

"Did Duke push to have these orders reversed," a WLOS reported asked. "No," Williams responded.

In an emailed statement Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy acknowledged the company had spoken with state regulators regarding the 'do not drink' letters.

"We have long been advocating for clarity for plant neighbors on well safety and had appropriate conversations with regulators to ask many of the same questions as neighbors have been," spokeswoman Danielle Peoples said. "We also provided scientific data to both agencies as part of the process to sort all of this out."

WEB EXTRA: Click here to read Davies' deposition

Reached for comment Thursday night, a spokeswoman for DHHS doubled down on the assertion that the water with elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium is safe to drink but did not address the new revelations about Duke Energy's push to have the criteria revised in its favor.

"The water in these wells meets the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act," said Department of Health and Human Services Communications Director Kendra Gerlach. "Allowing the affected residents to return to drinking their water is within federal and state guidelines and is consistent with safe drinking water practices across the country."

"It is misleading that the Southern Environmental Law Center would release partial information before our citizens have the complete facts," Gerlach said.

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