Last week, a little-known Bahama, N.C.-based data-science nonprofit called Insightus issued an alarming report regarding uranium levels in private water wells in Wake County.
Using obscure but publicly available state databases, Insightus found that chemical samples from private wells concentrated in the eastern part of the county—in and near towns such as Zebulon, Rolesville, and Wendell—routinely register dangerous levels of uranium.
Or, rather, they did—until 2014, when Wake County abruptly removed uranium from the list of chemicals for which it regularly tests.
- Illustration by Chris Williams
The INDY has examined Insightus's findings and confirmed its conclusions. Between 2010 and 2014, according to records maintained by the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health, forty private wells in eastern Wake County were found to contain amounts of uranium in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level of 0.03 mg/L. (Chronic ingestion of drinking water with elevated levels of uranium contributes to kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and may also correlate to increased cancer risks.)
Uranium is typically thought of as a byproduct of nuclear plants. But there are no nuclear facilities near the contaminated wells. The closest, Duke Energy's Harris Nuclear Plant, is clear on the other side of Wake County, in an area where tests of private wells have turned up no evidence of dangerous uranium levels.
Instead, the presence of uranium in eastern Wake is almost certainly naturally occurring, owing to a rock formation called the Rolesville Granite, which lies beneath the affected area. Many types of granite contain uranium. As the Insightus report notes, a 2009 study by Duke University found groundwater uranium concentrations "1 to 2 orders of magnitude higher in the Rolesville Granite than in the other rock types" of Wake County. Under certain conditions, granite bedrock will dissolve in groundwater, resulting in uranium being released into the pools from which wells draw their supply.
In North Carolina, more than a third of all residents access their water from private wells; only three other states have more individuals who obtain their water this way. Under a law passed in 2008, new private wells in North Carolina are required to be tested, within thirty days of construction, for a variety of chemicals, including iron, mercury, arsenic, lead, and copper, but not uranium. The county health department obtains the water samples and sends them to a certified laboratory—either the state laboratory or a private lab certified by the state—for analysis. The lab then sends the report to the Department of Health and Human Services' On-Site Water Protection Branch; the county sends a copy of the report to the well owner.
Unlike public water systems, though, the safety of private wells is not continually monitored. After the initial test is complete, any further tests are strictly voluntary. Moreover, even when a private well test confirms dangerous levels of one or more chemicals, the well owner is not required to treat the water or cease using the well. And since the law only went into effect in 2008, many private wells have not been tested for contaminants at all.
According to Wake County officials, in 2010, a resident along the Rolesville Granite took it upon himself to send a sample of his well water to the state lab for uranium testing. The test showed elevated levels of uranium.
"Wake County then conducted a study of uranium levels in the eastern part of the county by testing sixteen wells in the area for uranium," says county spokeswoman Jennifer Heiss. "Only two of those wells tested above the federal drinking water standard. Nevertheless, Wake County began requiring uranium testing of all new private drinking water wells in the Rolesville Granite rock formation shortly afterwards."
So, even though Wake was not required by state law to test for uranium, it began to do so in 2010 in response to evidence that the groundwater beneath the Rolesville Granite might contain unsafe levels of uranium. The reports revealed this hunch to be correct. Nine wells were found to contain unsafe levels of uranium in 2010; four in 2011; five in 2012; six in 2013; and fifteen in 2014.
In all, just under 10 percent of wells tested in eastern Wake County since 2010—40 out of 425—have been identified as containing dangerous levels of uranium, according to the state lab that analyzed Wake County's samples.
(Oddly, the numbers the county initially supplied to the INDY were dramatically lower: 244 well samples taken, and only fourteen wells with unsafe levels of uranium. When the INDY pointed out the disparity, county officials revised their figures to 393 samples with thirty-eight at unsafe uranium levels. Heiss attributed the error to "data entry lapses.")
But then, in 2014, Wake stopped testing for uranium entirely. Its official reasons for doing so are elaborately bureaucratic.
"In 2014, former Wake County Water Quality Division leadership directed staff to stop requiring uranium testing based on interpretation of" county well regulations, Heiss says. These regulations are based on the aforementioned state regulations, which do not require uranium testing. "In order to require uranium testing, the Human Services Board would have to amend these regulations to include uranium."
In other words, despite mounting evidence of unsafe uranium levels in private wells, Wake suddenly decided that it was prohibited from further exploring this public health issue due to a technicality in the law that had always existed.
What's more, the county seemingly does not view uranium as a serious problem because it is naturally occurring and contained to one area.
Per Heiss: "After multiple years of testing, it was determined that uranium presence in well water was limited to one part of the county and was not a countywide issue. It was also determined not to be tied to any known contaminant site, but to actually be naturally occurring in eastern Wake County."
Who made these decisions? The county has an unsatisfying response: "The decision was not made by a single person."
Heiss notes that Wake still offers uranium tests—they cost an extra $40—and that owners of wells found to contain unsafe levels of uranium are sent a form letter, written in consultation with a state toxicologist at the Department of Health and Human Services, advising them about the health risks. Composed in 2010, this letter, according to Heiss, is the extent to which the county sought counsel from the state on the uranium issue.
According to state law, the DHHS should have all private well water sample results on file. Despite this, there is no indication that anybody at the state level has expressed concern about uranium in Wake County. Or, for that matter, in Franklin, Nash, and Johnston counties, into which the Rolesville Granite extends and where virtually no uranium tests have been conducted.
A core question here remains, for now, unanswered: Why would Wake County take the proactive step of testing for uranium and then discontinue those tests when they revealed the very thing they were presumably concerned would be revealed?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hot Water"