Recently the state epidemiologist resigned over a disagreement with state administration as to whether the water is safe to consume for residents near the coal ash pits.
The chemical central to this is hexavalent chromium. It was a main character in “Erin Brockovich,” wherein a public utility was successfully sued for allowing hexavalent chromium to be consumed. It has been known to cause cancer and targets the kidneys, eyes, skin, liver and the respiratory system. States typically test at 10 parts per billion for total chromium, which is 500 times less stringent than California’s 0.2 parts per billion.
It is estimated that 74 million Americans have significant chromium in their drinking water.
The North Carolina legislature required all wells used for drinking to be tested if they were close to the coal ash pits. Testing was to be done by the environmental agency, with the results to be interpreted by public health. Warning letters were sent to 330 well owners advising them of the high level based on one part per million per the state law. The state then reversed course and, using the federal standard, letters were sent that the levels were overstated and the water was safe to drink now.
Having scientists disagree is nothing new as most court cases that depend upon science can find someone for or against anything. And it is not unusual for agencies to not be in concert as they have different missions.
In this case, public health focuses on the individual and group health while the environment factors in the effect on the business climate. The sticky point here is that the governor was allowed to make a whole slew of employees “at-will” that didn’t use to be. As such, the responsible person will do as the governor says or she is gone, irrespective of what the science states. The epidemiologist disagreed with the reversal and once she disagreed, she had to leave voluntarily or otherwise. In a world of checks and balances, North Carolina is left with just checks.
Bill Smith is the director of the Robeson County Health Department.