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Environment

NC Changes Governors, Keeps Cancer-Causing Chemical Standard

Duke Energy's coal burning plant and the adjacent coal ash ponds by the Dan River.
Riverkeeper Foundation
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Now that he's governor, Cooper's environmental agency has decided to keep that same standard, infuriating people who say their well water is contaminated and enabling former Gov. Pat McCrory to call Cooper a hypocrite.

As a Democratic gubernatorial candidate last fall, Roy Cooper blasted his Republican opponent for adopting a more lenient standard than what's recommended by North Carolina's health agency for cancer-causing hexavalent chromium in well water.

Now that he's governor, Cooper's environmental agency has decided to keep that same standard, infuriating people who say their well water is contaminated and enabling former Gov. Pat McCrory to call Cooper a hypocrite.

The state Department of Environmental Quality's guidelines for the well-water filtering systems Duke Energy will be required by law to install for some neighbors of its North Carolina coal-ash storage pits were announced last week. They match the standard for protecting against hexavalent chromium that McCrory's administration adopted, which is about 140 times higher than the amount the state's health agency says could harm human health if exceeded.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says hexavalent chromium is likely to be carcinogenic when ingested. The chemical was portrayed as poisoning residents of a California town in a Hollywood movie about legal sleuth Erin Brockovich.

Neighbors of the pits had been warned in 2015 against drinking well water with hexavalent chromium levels over the state health agency's safety threshold, which equates to a one-in-a-million chance of developing cancer for someone drinking the water over a lifetime. McCrory's team last year called that threshold too conservative and dropped the do-not-drink warnings.

McCrory declared Thursday that he's been vindicated.

"I concur with the administration about its decision because that's exactly what our team of scientists came to, the same conclusion. It's exactly what we recommended. Candidate Cooper said otherwise," McCrory said in a phone interview. "The actions of this administration verify that the Cooper campaign misled and deceived the public about our drinking water in order to help win a campaign."

Cooper's spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Lawyers representing coal-ash neighbors ripped the standard now adopted by Cooper's administration.

"Families will have to rely on these systems for safe tap water," the lawyers said in a statement. "The much higher DEQ standard does not adequately protect the families who live near the coal ash."

The stricter health-safety mark for hexavalent chromium is a non-enforceable goal that could be updated, but the more-tolerant level the environmental agency adopted conforms to state groundwater quality regulations, Department of Environmental Quality Michael Regan said in an interview Thursday.

A science advisory board will study how much hexavalent chromium is safe to ingest and offer suggestions.
"We need to remove the ambiguity," Regan said.

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