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Deposition: Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory ignored cancer-risk estimate for polluted well water approved by CDC
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Deposition: Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory ignored cancer-risk estimate for polluted well water approved by CDC

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The McCrory administration turned its back on a cancer-risk threshold that had been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the state’s effort to screen well water near Duke Energy coal ash basins for contaminants, according to a deposition by State Epidemiologist Megan Davies released last week.

The threshold underpinned the do-not-drink letters that were issued in 2015 — and rescinded a year later — by state health officials to well owners.

State scientists such as Kenneth Rudo, Mina Shehee and Sandy Mort helped calculate a level of 0.07 parts per billion to screen for hexavalent chromium, one of the more potent contaminants associated with coal ash because of its link to stomach cancer.

They did so because the state legislature passed a law in 2014, after the Dan River coal ash spill, requiring that wells near Duke Energy coal ash basins be screened for a host of contaminants, including hexavalent chromium. There was no federal or state standard specific to hexavalent chromium, so they formulated a screening level based on state water rules: The screening level must carry a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1 million.

Ideally, water should contain no hexavalent chromium, environmental advocates say, but the level of 0.07 parts per billion is considered health-protective. Well owners such as Amy Brown in Belmont, near Duke Energy’s Allen power plant, would face a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1 million if the concentration of hexavalent chromium met that level. The chances would be even slimmer if the concentration were smaller.

Brown’s water showed a concentration of hexavalent chromium of 2.2 parts per billion.

Samples taken from other well owners run even higher.

By comparison, public water provided by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg utility to people who live near Brown shows an average concentration of 0.067 parts per billion, according to a review of data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It isn’t clear what risk of cancer 2.2 parts per billion poses, but, according to Davies’ testimony, the risk rises steeply as the concentration exceeds 0.07 parts per billion. According to Davies’ testimony, a level of 0.70 parts per billion carries a lifetime risk of 1 in 100,000.

“Why is it so hard to get these people to want to protect us?” asked Brown, referring to state government. “When did it become acceptable in this state to ignore the cries of a mother for her children?”

“This wasn’t one person sitting at a desk. This was a team of people. And now we know the CDC approved that level.

“I don’t understand why it seems like my state is going against the experts. I just don’t understand that. Isn’t putting people’s health and safety priority No. 1? The one that gets a voice is Duke. That’s what it feels like. The deposition proves what I knew — what was in my heart — when they sent those rescission letters,” Brown said.

Vetting process

Under questioning during a deposition two weeks ago, Davies talked about the vetting process.

“When you all did the analysis — or when you reviewed the analysis and reached the conclusion of 0.07 for hexavalent chromium, did you all communicate with the United States — that is, the federal Center for Disease Control, CDC?” Davies was asked by Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Yes,” Davies replied.

“And what was that communication?” Holleman asked.

“It was a consultation with CDC-ATSDR on — to verify that we were using the correct Cancer Slope Factor in the calculation,” Davies said, referring to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“And is the Cancer Slope Factor a critical part of the calculation?” he asked.

“Yes,” Davies said.

“And what was CDC’s response?” he asked.

“They agreed that was the correct factor,” she said.

Whose standard?

Members of Gov. Pat McCrory’s inner circle and administration tried to alter the do-not-drink warning, according to Davies’ deposition. Duke Energy said it was not reasonable. In the end, Duke Energy got what it wanted. The warning letters pertaining to hexavalent chromium were rescinded. Put in place was a message pushed by Duke Energy: The water is considered safe under federal standards.

That federal standard is actually for total chromium, which can be made up of different types, such as hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium. The federal standard allows for a concentration of hexavalent chromium of up to 100 parts per billion.

Water with a concentration of hexavalent chromium at 100 parts per billion would carry a lifetime risk of 1 in 700, according to the calculations made by the state health scientists.

Which raises the question: Does the McCrory administration disagree that a concentration of 100 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium carries a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 700?

McCrory’s office did not respond to emails over two days asking the question.

Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said: “We would leave cancer risk analyses to health professionals and wouldn’t really be able to weigh in on those kinds of specifics.”

Kendra Gerlach, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, declined to say specifically whether the state health department disagrees with its own scientists that the risk associated with 100 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium is 1 in 700.

Gerlach’s response mirrored that given by Duke Energy: “Drinking water wells in question meet federal safe drinking water regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency that govern cities and state’s drinking water supplies.”

Crystal Feldman, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, said the department “will not confirm that calculation because it is based on a study that the federal EPA has not verified.” Asked whether the DEQ places value in the CDC’s stamp of approval, Feldman said: “DEQ relies on the federal EPA to determine what is safe for drinking water.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of studying a possible standard specific to hexavalent chromium.

As things stand, hexavalent chromium is not a regulated contaminant.

Asked whether she feels bad about the DHHS having sent out the do-drink letters, Davies said: “I feel conflicted.”

High-level meeting

DHHS sent the first wave of do-not-drink letters in the spring of 2015. A few months later, in June, Duke Energy successfully requested a meeting with state health and environmental officials to discuss the warning letters and the health screening level of 0.07, according to the testimony.

At the meeting were several Duke Energy lawyers.

Also there: Harry Sideris, the senior vice president of environmental, health and safety at Duke Energy, and Mark McIntire, the director of environmental policy and affairs at Duke Energy. DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, who was appointed by McCrory in January 2015, was there. So was Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary for the environment.

At the meeting, Sideris “said he didn’t think they were reasonable,” Davies said, referring to the do-not-drink letters.

Separately, Josh Ellis, a member of McCrory’s office, also advocated for the federal guideline.

“The main issue was wanting to have wording on there that reflected that (federal) Safe Drinking Water Act Standards were not exceeded,” Davies said, referring to Ellis’ concerns.

In March, DHHS sent another wave of letters saying it is OK to drink the water in part because it falls within a federal standard that would allow a concentration of hexavalent chromium of up to 100 parts per billion.

That’s the one with the cancer risk of 1 in 700.

“It is clear that the governor and his political appointees at DEQ and DHHS are willing to flout their responsibilities to the people of North Carolina in order to help Duke Energy,” said Therese Vick, with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

bgutierrez@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7278 @gutierrez_WSJ

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