State Officials to Lee County Residents: It’s Now Safe to Drink Your Coal Ash Water | News

State Officials to Lee County Residents: It’s Now Safe to Drink Your Coal Ash Water


  • Photo by Jeremy Lange
  • Jordan Lake

Lee County residents, whose well water was recently found to be polluted by coal ash contaminants, got an alarming surprise this week.

They heard from officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services that their water is actually safe to drink, even though 14 private wells that were tested were found to contain water pollutants associated with coal ash contamination.

Dr. Randall Williams, the state’s health director, and Tom Reeder, DEQ’s assistant secretary for the environment, told Lee County commissioners Monday that the state had gone back on an earlier position it had taken on the issue last year.

Around two dozen private wells in Lee County were tested last year and notices were issued to at least 400 households in Lee County, advising them not to drink their well water. However, these wells (and no water sources in general) were not tested under the state's Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA); DHHS and DEQ officials are basing their recommendations off of results of water tested under CAMA.

The water had been found to be contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, as well as with vanadium, and other toxic metals.

Reeder and Williams said the state was being overly cautious in advising residents not to drink the contaminated water, given that water tested in other areas of the state is shown to contain similar levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium.

Information on the N.C. DHHS website indicates that health officials came to this recommendation after further study on the risks to peoples’ health of ingesting or cooking with water contaminated with vanadium and hexavalent chromium, and finding that there are no national trends “for increasing regulations on these elements in the past year.”

A March 1 report from DEQ to DHHS recommended lifting the “do not drink” orders.

“We have been committed to a process of further study and ongoing communication,” said State Health Director Randall Williams, MD. “We believe lifting these recommendations reflects the current state of our knowledge on the health risks of these elements and aligns them with other users of water with similar levels in North Carolina.”

But most of the families who received “do not drink” letters have been using bottled water since then and clean water advocates, and residents, aren’t buying the state’s recommendation.

“State officials owe residents and local officials in Lee County an apology, and they owe every North Carolinian an explanation,” said Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices North Carolina campaign coordinator Amy Adams said in a statement. “Falling back on the flawed reasoning we’ve come to expect from the DEQ, the agency appears ready to abandon the health standards developed by DHHS. We share residents’ skepticism of the state’s sudden claims that their water has been safe all along…This decision shows the agency’s split-personality and an apparent disagreement on which facts matter and which can be ignored.”

In other North Carolina water news, a joint report from DEQ and the Environmental Management Commission released last week shows that “epilimnetic mixers,” otherwise known as Solarbees, aren’t working to eliminate nutrient pollution in Jordan Lake. Nutrient pollution (from storm water runoff) is known to promote algal growth and increase oxygen near the bottom of lakes.

The Jordan Lake Solarbees pilot project was initiated through a no-bid contract in a previous state budget, despite a DEQ (then DENR) analysis at the time that suggested that the in-lake strategy would not work. 

The report suggests that "comprehensive, adaptive, and science-based approach to reducing nutrient inputs to the watershed remains the most viable option for recovering these waterbodies from impairment." 

“The initial two-year pilot project on Jordan Lake cost $1.3 million and has shown no improvement in water quality in impaired areas,” the report states. It notes that the state will spend a further $1.5 million on the technology through 2018. “With the quickly changing nature of Jordan Lake and continual high input of nutrients, it is not likely that improvements in water quality will be realized.”

See the full report here. Solarbees in Jordan Lake are addressed on pages 5-6.

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