A story has been making the rounds this week about a Rowan County community called Dukeville. Environmentalists found toxic heavy metals in drinking water wells near Duke Energy’s retired Buck coal plant, suggesting contamination from coal ash. One metal found in all the wells has generated the most attention.
“A cancer-causing chemical, called hexavalent chromium,” WCNC reported.
Chromium’s “most toxic form,” an Associated Press investigative story reads.
WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey to discuss problems with these reports.
RUMSEY: All right, so, what’s the problem?
BRADFORD: Well, chromium-six is absolutely a carcinogenic chemical; it’s the one at the center of the Erin Brokovich story. And the Waterkeeper Alliance’s tests were conducted by nationally and state-certified labs. But the levels that the Waterkeeper Alliance found are all well-below the allowable limits in water, federally and within the state.
RUMSEY: Well, if they aren’t exceeding the state limits, what is the concern?
BRADFORD: I talked with Donna Lisenby of the Waterkeeper Alliance about that, and here was her response:
LISENBY: Every drinking water standard assumes some level of unhealthy or negative health result is acceptable. It’s usually a very small risk level. Because hexavalent chromium is such a dangerous carcinogen, we would rather err on the side of safety, especially because there are small children in many of these homes drinking this water.
BRADFORD: So, the Waterkeeper Alliance instead points to a public health goal recently set by state regulators in California, 500 times lower than our state standard.
RUMSEY: And what’s that goal for?
BRADFORD: It’s if a million people were to drink 2-liters of the water every day for 70 years, the point at which one more person would get cancer. It’s not designed to be a practical standard, according to Sam Delson from CalEPA.
DELSON: A PHG is not a boundary between a safe and dangerous level of the contaminant, and it’s not considered the highest level of a contaminant that’s safe to drink. The purpose of the public health goal is to provide scientific guidance in developing the regulatory standard.
BRADFORD: In the case of chromium-six, we don’t even have the ability to measure the level set out in the public health goal, that’s how small it is.
RUMSEY: So, does that mean there shouldn’t be any concerns about public health up in Dukeville?
BRADFORD: No, the report did find high levels of lead in a couple of wells, as well as aluminum and a few other heavy metals. And, they also found what matches the description of coal ash seepage onto private land. That’s very concerning. We know the ponds leak metals into the groundwater, and Duke has had to supply water to families elsewhere. Duke has offered to do joint testing with the Waterkeeper Alliance, and I think that’s what we’ll see after this report—more testing.