Controversy Over Drinking Water Safety In N.C. Private Wells Drags On
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In North Carolina, state scientists are in a war of words with the governor. This is part of a long-running fight over the safety of ground water around coal-burning power plants. Member station WFAE's David Boraks reports.
DAVID BORAKS, BYLINE: A little over a year ago, state water quality officials sent do-not-drink letters to hundreds of well owners near eight Duke Energy plants across North Carolina. Tests showed dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal known to cause cancer.
AMY BROWN: I was scared. I was sitting at the kitchen table. And I remember as I started reading the letter, this fear just came over me.
BORAKS: Amy Brown and her family, including two boys, live a thousand feet from a coal ash pit at a Duke Energy power plant west of Charlotte. Hexavalent chromium is found in nature, but also in coal ash, the residue left after coal is burned.
BROWN: How many bottles did I wash with this water? How many pacifiers did I rinse off and put in my child's mouth that were still wet?
BORAKS: Duke Energy denies contamination is coming from its plants. Still, it's supplying bottled water to hundreds of plant neighbors statewide. Cases of water are stacked in Brown's kitchen and TV room. The family uses it for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth. Then this spring, the state reversed itself and told many well owners their water is as safe as any public water supply.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The reversed decision affecting hundreds of homeowners who were told not to drink their water. Letters are going out to more than 200 homeowners living near coal ash ponds.
BORAKS: It turns out, top officials in the administration of Governor Pat McCrory, who once worked for Duke Energy, decided to use a less stringent standard for hexavalent chromium. That angered state scientists, who accused the governor's office of questioning their expertise and endangering public health.
Emails and court documents reveal a debate inside state government over the safety of those private wells. In one document, a state toxicologist describes a meeting that included the governor by telephone. When that became public, the governor's chief of staff, Thomas Stith, called a late-night press conference to attack the scientist.
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THOMAS STITH: We're not going to stand by idly while individuals make false statements and lies under oath.
BORAKS: Two other McCrory aides joined the attack. They wrote a newspaper editorial that portrayed the toxicologist as a rogue scientist with questionable findings. That was too much for one of the state's top scientists. Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned. In a scathing letter to superiors, she said she couldn't work in an administration that deliberately misleads the public. She told radio station WUNC she was outraged over the editorial by the two aides.
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MEGAN DAVIES: Those two people sent out a document that conveyed that a lone scientist was behaving independently on his own whim when people's health and lives were affected by those recommendations.
BORAKS: Davies' resignation made headlines. It even attracted the attention of Erin Brockovich, the environmentalist whose own fight over hexavalent chromium became a Hollywood movie. Now Brockovich is calling on the EPA to set a nationwide drinking water standard for the substance.
Governor McCrory dismisses it all as a disagreement among scientists. Well owners remain confused over who to believe. Duke Energy is still supplying bottled water and soon will be required to provide safe permanent water supplies. But Amy Brown says that's not enough. She's still afraid of the coal ash pits next to her home.
BROWN: Getting us water was the outside, the wrapping on this package. But what they didn't want you to do is open it up and look inside. And inside of that is nasty, toxic waste that will continue to be sitting in the ground.
BORAKS: She wants the ash removed and says she wants to be able to trust her state again. For NPR News, I'm David Boraks in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.