Q&A: Are Wells Near Duke Coal Ash Dumps Safe?

Aug 4, 2016

This week Governor Pat McCrory's office accused a state toxicologist of lying under oath. That came after that toxicologist testified in a lawsuit to force Duke Energy to remove coal ash from one of its North Carolina plants. The testimony has ignited another round of debate over whether well water near Duke coal plants is safe to drink. WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks talked with All Things Considered host Lisa Worf about the news.   

LW: So David, what's everyone arguing about? 

DB:  Lisa, you may remember that a little over a year ago, state environmental officials sent "do not drink" letters to the owners of 330 wells near eight Duke Energy plants.

The notices said the wells contained dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium, a chemical known to cause cancer. Chromium occurs naturally, but it’s also found in coal ash.

Then this past March, the state reversed itself and withdrew warnings for many of the wells.  State public health director Dr. Randall Williams and assistant environmental secretary Tom Reeder sent a letter that called the wells as safe as most public water supplies.

That created a lot of confusion.

LW: So this happened back in March … Why are we hearing about it now?

DB -  It went out of the headlines for a while, but it didn't go away for homeowners and environmentalists.  And over the past couple of weeks it's come up in court. We're getting new court documents that tell the inside story of disagreements within state government over those "safe to drink" letters.  

LW -  What's in the documents?

DB -  The headlines this week are all based on a deposition by state toxicologist Ken Rudo. He was one of the state officials behind the original “do not drink letter.” He was interviewed by lawyers for environmental groups that are suing Duke Energy over coal ash leaks at its plants.

Rudo says top state health officials shouldn't have told residents their well water was safe. According to the deposition … and emails I've seen ... he and other coworkers objected to the second letter – the one that revoked the do not drink order.  

Rudo says some of the statements were "scientifically untrue"  ... and sending it was "unethical and possibly illegal" … because the wells are contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical.  

LW - What's been the reaction to Rudo's comments?

DB - Environmental groups and people who live near the coal ash dumps say Rudo's testimony supports their complaints and concerns.

I talked to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued to get coal ash removed at many of Duke’s plants. They say they can't comment because the case is pending.  

The Law Center filed Rudo’s statement as evidence in a lawsuit to force Duke to remove coal ash at the Buck plant in Salisbury. They say it shows coal ash is a health risk for those with wells nearby.

The full document hasn’t formally been made public.  We have it because an Associated Press reporter got hold of it.  

Duke Energy doesn’t want the public to see Rudo’s statements – the company asked a federal judge to seal it. Duke argues the deposition is incomplete and full of "hearsay" and says releasing it could sway jurors.  

The Southern Environmental Law Center argues it's a public document.

And then there’s Governor Pat McCrory's office, which has criticized Rudo. The governor's chief of staff , Thomas Stith, called a press conference Tuesday night - just in time for the 11 o'clock news in Raleigh.

He said Rudo lied under oath about the governor’s involvement in a meeting about the March “safe to drink” letter.  And McCrory is taking credit for getting new, permanent water supplies for coal ash dump neighbors.

LW - So is the water safe?

DB - That's the big question. I'm not a scientist or a toxicologist, but some scientists and toxicologists say it's not. The state's public health director Randall Williams … who was appointed by Governor McCrory … says it is.   He ended up applying a less stringent standard for chromium than the original letter used.

In the middle of all this, Duke Energy is still providing bottled water to about 400 households around some plants.  That will continue for a while. But homeowners eventually will get relief: An update to the state's Coal Ash Management Act passed this spring, orders Duke to hook households up to new water supplies - such as public water systems - by October 2018.