Did the McCrory administration fail to perform the most basic job of government?

By: - May 17, 2016 5:00 am

wb-517Deposition indicates administration officials and Duke Energy pressured regulators to loosen water safety standards, jeopardize public health

There are a lot of serious indictments that can be leveled at a public official. Corruption, ineptitude, disloyalty – the list of potential offenses is a lengthy one. At some basic level, however, it’s hard to imagine a more damning allegation than that he or she knowingly jeopardized the physical health and wellbeing of his or her constituents.

Several years ago, the Governor of Illinois went to jail as a result of a bribery scandal that took place during his tenure as Secretary of State. What made his crime so heinous and universally decried, however, was not so much the actual offense – the sale of truck driver licenses to unqualified individuals – it was fact that one such sale led to the death of six children in a minivan that was rear-ended by one of the unqualified drivers.

As has been noted in countless news stories and commentaries over the past year (including in this space a couple of months back), that’s what’s so profoundly disturbing about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. After all, it’s one thing to disagree on tax policy, education funding or even the role of government, but the notion that a public official would recklessly expose the people he or she serves – especially children – to the strong likelihood of sickness and disease in order to save a few bucks is just so fundamentally wrong as to be simply unforgivable.

The problem of drinking water near coal ash sites

This brings us to the ongoing controversy surrounding North Carolina’s monumental coal ash problem and, in particular, the challenge of providing access to safe drinking water for hundreds of families who live in the vicinity of coal ash storage sites.

As readers will recall, there are numerous Duke Energy-owned coal ash pits and “ponds” in North Carolina in which mountains of waste ash from coal fired power plants have simply been dumped in enormous, open-air holes. Not surprisingly, liquid or “leachate” frequently seeps out of these pits into the surrounding ground water and causes all kinds of potential problems for the people who would drink it.

Unfortunately, while the nature of this problem is pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever seen the mess that just one leaking septic tank or underground gasoline tank can cause, it appears to be escaping the attention of the McCrory administration. According to a numerous stories by reporter Bertrand Gutierrez of the Winston-Salem Journal and others, the administration continues to downplay the risk posed to drinking water sources by the coal ash sites and, indeed, has moved aggressively to declare water safe that experts believe contains potentially dangerous quantities of a carcinogenic chemical.

As Gutierrez has documented, in 2015, officials in the state Department of Environmental Quality declared the water dangerous for hundreds of families living near coal ash sites. The problem involves the carcinogenic chemical known as hexavalent chromium. When the state tested wells near several coal ash dumps last year, there was no specific rule for this chemical so 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.

This led to a large number of families receiving “do not drink” warnings with respect to their well water and the rather remarkable phenomenon of Duke Energy being required to cart in large quantities of free bottled water to them on a regular basis.

The McCrory-Duke axis intervenes

In March of this year, however, all of this suddenly changed as the Department of Environmental Quality flip-flopped and declared the water safe.

While much remains unclear about hexavalent chromium pollution (Gutierrez’ article from yesterday explored many of the varying risk levels), what is clear is how the switcheroo on what constitutes a safe level in North Carolina came about. Simply put, state officials reexamined the issue at the behest of Duke Energy and McCrory administration officials and decided that the standard initially applied was too tough.

We know this because Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman recently deposed State Epidemiologist Megan Davies on the matter as part of litigation involving environmental groups, Duke and the state. What he discovered was a bit of a bombshell. This is from the most recent edition of the N.C. League of Conservation Voters’ Conservation insider Bulletin:

In her deposition, NC state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies told of a meeting in June 2015 at which Duke representatives challenged the earlier letters from the state which warned against drinking the contaminated well water. In addition to Davies and other state public health officials, the meeting included DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart and his deputy Tom Reeder. 

It was subsequent to this meeting that the state sent out letters to well owners retracting the do-not-drink warnings—letters which Dr. Davies opposed. It was also subsequent to the meeting that Reeder made public statements that the contamination by carcinogenic hexavalent chromium found in the contaminated well water was no worse than that in public drinking water systems. Dr. Davies testified to the inaccuracy of those statements in key respects. 

As reported by the Winston-Salem Journal and other media outlets, the meeting with Davies, van der Vaart, Reeder, and Duke representatives was around the same time that Duke attorneys and executives met with Governor Pat McCrory and other state department officials at the governor’s mansion. McCrory Administration officials have declined to say what was discussed at that meeting.

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots here. State health officials put out warning letters to users of well water near Duke coal ash pits, contaminated with dangerous levels of a substance known to be associated with coal ash. Duke complains to the health officials directly and to their bosses (probably up to and including the Governor himself, and certainly up to the governor’s appointed environmental department leader). Over the health officials’ objection, the warning letters are rescinded. “

And this is from Gutierrez’ story on the matter in yesterday’s edition of the Journal (“Deposition: Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory ignored cancer-risk estimate for polluted well water approved by CDC”):

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….

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.”

In other words, the situation with respect to drinking water near North Carolina’s coal ash sites comes down to this: frontline health experts determined quite reasonably that hundreds of families were at risk from water polluted by coal ash chemicals. These officials were ultimately overruled, however, by a group of McCrory administration higher-ups who were clearly influenced by powerful figures at the company behind the pollution – a company that employed the Governor himself for 28 years prior to his election to his current office.

The bottom line

The world of policy and politics is admittedly a complex environment in which elected leaders and the professional staff of public agencies must balance a number of important and competing interests. This is especially true when it comes to questions of health and safety. What’s more, public officials cannot make the world completely risk-free for all of the people they serve.

That said, there has to be a point in every discussion of such issues in which basic common sense and human decency kick in and trump the demands of the politically connected and the powerful. Unfortunately, when it comes to coal ash and safe drinking water for the citizens of North Carolina, it’s increasingly clear that the McCrory administration has failed this fundamental test of sound governance.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

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