A North Carolina version of the Flint crisis?

By: - March 22, 2016 5:00 am

wb-321The McCrory administration’s latest disturbing actions on water safety near coal ash sites

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan in which penny pinching government officials have endangered and likely damaged the health of thousands of people in order to save a remarkably small sum of cash has become a symbol for much of what’s wrong with our modern, tax cut-obsessed politics.

As Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison wrote in The Nation magazine yesterday:

“Families in Flint, Michigan are facing a man-made tragedy. Their water is making them sick. This happened because the state government ripped democratic rights away from residents and tried to run government like a business. The state government made decisions in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” but when it comes to people’s health and well-being, the government should not cut corners and operate on the cheap.

The government provides services and protects the people. Businesses make a profit even if that means laying off employees and cutting costs. The government should not seek profit, but rather the protection of those it represents. But when Governor Rick Snyder signed an emergency manager law, he made it possible for a single, unelected official to cut services, strip regulations and gut local governments, all without being voted into office or held accountable by the people. Then, a flawed strategy to save a little money on water—even when it poisoned children—caused a crisis. “

Remarkably and disturbingly, it’s looking more and more as if Ellison’s damning assessment of Flint might well be apt in describing the situation confronting hundreds of North Carolina families living near Duke Energy coal ash sites. As numerous news sources have reported in recent weeks, the McCrory administration has adopted a similar, “pennywise, pound foolish” approach toward the water running into those families’ homes.

Making water “safe” by weakening standards

Here’s reporter Bertrand Gutierrez explaining the situation in an article (“Well owners in disbelief about state’s decision to lift tainted water warning”) in this past Saturday’s Winston-Salem Journal:

“Hundreds of well owners near Duke Energy coal ash pits received letters last spring from state health officials warning them not to drink their own well water. Last week, a letter signed by Randall Williams, the state health director, and Tom Reeder, the assistant state secretary for the environment, lifted the warning.

Now, well owners such as Bonita Queen, Deborah Graham and Gail Johnston, who live near coal ash pits, say they don’t know what to believe. Their wells still contain hexavalent chromium, a man-made carcinogen.

‘Nothing has changed,’ said Queen, a Salisbury resident who lives near Duke’s Buck power plant. ‘There has not been any proof showing what has changed from it being not safe to drink 10 months ago to it being safe to drink now.’”

What’s changed, of course, are the standards that the McCrory administration is applying to the water. Simply stated, the state Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services made the water “safe” to drink by simply upping the amount of coal ash chemicals that they deem permissible for human consumption.

As Gutierrez explained, when the state tested wells for the families last year, its experts in public health assessed safety according to the usual state rule that causes red flags to wave when the amount of a chemical raises the cancer risk to above one in a million individuals. At the time, it decided that the water exceeded that level for hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

After several months of Duke Energy providing large quantities of bottled water to hundreds of impacted families, however, DEQ had a change of heart and lifted the “do not drink” order on hundreds of wells. After much back and forth between officials at DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services, a decision was made to raise the permissible amounts of the chemicals.

According to state Health Director Randall Williams, the decision was made because the state realized that its standards were more stringent than those in effect in other places around the country. Here’s Williams speaking to Lee County commissioners as reported by independent journalist Rhiannon Fionn last week:

“We realized that as you looked around the country … that at least with vanadium, there was no regulation. And while there was regulation for chromium, it didn’t specifically say hexavalent [chromium] VI; it did say that for the purposes of the EPA that chromium could be made up of only hexavalent [chromium] VI.”

But as Gutierrez and Fionn both report, this decision to abandon the tougher standards was made by top officials over the objection of health and water quality experts. Here’s Gutierrez:

“Other expert staff members at DHHS supported the use of the 0.07 parts per billion screening level, including Ken Rudo, the state toxicologist, who last week took a leave of absence as the letters were sent out.

He declined to talk about the state’s decision to lift the warning.

But his emails make his position clear.

“OEEB will strongly recommend the use of the Cr VI (hexavalent chromium) health protective value of 0.07 … in our health risk evaluations to our management, especially as they relate to drinking water wells adjacent to coal ash sites, where the Division of Water Resources has requested OEEB’s assistance in providing their Division with HREs (health risk evaluations),” Rudo said in an email dated Jan. 27, 2015.

And here’s Fionn:

“Currently on leave, Rudo declined to comment for this article, instead referring me to Nancy Holt, an established expert on water quality and public health issues who is presently working with the Flint, Mich., community, and has worked with at least 30 other states during her 40-year career. She said:

‘What’s happening in North Carolina is similar to what’s happening in Flint. The water is not safe to drink, even if it is in municipal water supplies – it’s not safe. What’s happening now is about politics. I have never known a state to withdraw ‘do not drink’ orders. The only thing that is important is protecting people, and the state of North Carolina has withdrawn that protection. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

Where things stand

Many of the families impacted by the state’s flip-flop are understandably upset – especially since Duke now plans to shut off the free bottled water. As Amy Adams of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices told WRAL recently:

“There’s going to be hell to pay for somebody at the end of the day who has to explain to people why it was too dangerous to drink two days ago, but today it’s fine. You didn’t fix the problem. You lowered the number.”

All that said, it is worth mentioning that the issue of safe carcinogen levels in drinking water is a complex one. Critics of the original tougher standards have at least a small point to make when they mention that there are no widely accepted national standards for safety when it comes to some of the chemicals implicated.

Unfortunately, the McCrory administration would have a heck of a lot more credibility in espousing such a position and conveying it to the affected families were the Governor himself not a former 28-year Duke employee who refuses to meet with the families and had DEQ not made itself a virtual extension of the Duke public relations and legal departments throughout the last three years.

Whether it’s the slap-on-the-hands fines it has imposed on Duke for its many law violations, the secret meeting McCrory held with Duke officials in January, its willingness to go along with Duke’s tortoise-like clean-up plan for the state’s numerous coal ash sites or the systematic dismantling of the state environmental apparatus itself, the administration is rightfully seen as a paper tiger when it comes to its dealings with the nation’s largest electric power company.

In other words, whatever the actual danger level of their water, it’s clear why hundreds of North Carolina families feel just as abandoned as the people of Flint. What’s more, this is not a situation that is going to get better anytime soon.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.