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Erin Brockovich, EWG Weigh In on North Carolina Coal Ash Debate

By Jan Lee

Duke Energy's battle to maintain control over how and when it closes its 14 North Carolina coal ash ponds has just met a new challenge.  Environmental activist Erin Brockovich and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to lower the maximum level of hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)] allowed in public drinking water.  Cr-6 has been found in water sources adjacent to unlined coal ash ponds such as those maintained by the electric company in North Carolina.

Coal ash and hexavalent chromium

Kenneth Cook, president of the EWG and Brockovich, who is a consumer protection advocate for Weitz and Lutzenberg, PC in Los Angeles, released a letter last week calling on EPA administrator Gina McCarthy to “use [her] authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act” to revise the current standards for Cr(VI) contamination of drinking water. According to the EWG and Brockovich, "there is no federal enforceable health-protective standard" set by the federal government that states can rely upon to regulate Cr(VI) levels in potable water.

Brockovich is no stranger to the hexavalent chromium debate. Her research into Cr(VI) contamination of drinking water during the 1990s in California led to a $333 million award against Pacific Gas and Electric. Cr(VI) was found to have polluted local community water sources and the law firm where she was working as a law clerk at the time, Masry and Vititoe, was able to prove that Pacific Gas and Electric was responsible for the pollution.

Since that time, researchers at the National Institutes of Health have been able to confirm that consuming Cr(VI) can cause cancer. The EPA has reportedly been aware of the danger, but hasn’t taken steps to lower the maximum allowed limits in drinking water.

"We write with deep concern about this continued delay. It is clear that the delay is sowing confusion among state and local regulators, utilities and the public about how much hexavalent chromium is safe in drinking water," the EWG and Brockovich wrote. They said the lack of clarity in how much of the chemical is considered toxic is increasing the public's chance of exposure to the chemical, "which federal, state and independent scientists agree pose health hazards."

In July, North Carolina's legislature passed a new bill that gives Duke Energy more say into when and how coal ash ponds are cleaned up. Only four of the 14 coal ash sites are to be closed on a priority basis. Duke Energy at the same time, must supply drinking water until 2018 for those residents with wells affected by coal ash leaks.  It is not clear whether that supply will also be available to farm stock and other domestic animals near the sites. Duke Energy says it plans to have all coal ash sites closed by 2029. Environmental groups are pushing to have the sites closed earlier.

Epidemiologist: State is misleading residents

But Brockovich and the EWG’s letter isn’t the only headache for Duke Energy these days. Last week the state’s head epidemiologist, Dr. Megan Davies resigned from her post with North Carolina’s Division of Public Health, stating that the state was deliberately misleading the public regarding the safety of well water that may have been exposed to seepage or leaks from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

In her letter of resignation, Davies took issue with the state’s handling of testimony by Public Health officials in a recent court case. State toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, who worked under Davies, testified that he disagreed with the state’s decision to rescind “do not drink” orders issued to community members who get their water from wells near leaking coal ash ponds.  In a widely publicized rebuttle the state health director took Rudo to task for “unprofessional approach to this important matter” and accused the toxicologist of “questionable and inconsistent conclusions” in his work. Rudo hired a lawyer, and both Davies filed her resignation, confirming that she had personally informed her superiors several times during 2015.

“The editorial signed by Randall Williams and Tom Reeder presents a false narrative of a lone scientist," Davies said, noting that upper management was regularly informed of recommended steps, because the department "followed a procedure that engaged DPH and DHHS leadership in all decisions."

The state has yet to issue a statement on Davies' resignation, but environmental organizations and North Carolina residents aren't waiting. Protesters armed with air horn guns and other audible instruments have taken up temporary residence near the state's executive mansion and are making their feelings known to the governor from outside his window. In addition to the festering coal ash controversy, the protesters are upset about the government's controversial law (HB2) regulating where LBGT individuals can use public facilities. The protesters have vowed to serenade the governors' residence every Wednesday until election day in November.


Image: Flickr/Public.Resource.org

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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