May the odds be ever in your favor

While North Carolina has not devolved into a Hunger Games landscape, our state leadership’s willingness to gamble with the health and safety of its citizens harkens to this infamous decree coined in the pop culture series.

The weapon of choice for North Carolina leadership: hexavalent chromium, a known cancer-causing chemical, discovered in residents’ wells near Duke Energy coal ash ponds.

Dukeville residents have relied on bottled water for more than 18 months
Photo courtesy of Deborah Graham

In 2015, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sent letters to impacted well owners near leaking coal ash ponds, urging residents to avoid drinking or using water from these contaminated wells. Instead, residents spent the next 18 months living on bottled water to cook, clean, and drink.

Out of nowhere, the same agencies that issued the “do not drink” letters sent 235 well owners another letter in March 2016: ignore those earlier “do not drink” letters. Your water is just fine.

What had changed over those months that turned water from dangerous to drinkable?


Researchers tested these wells that were within 1500 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps and discovered more than 0.07 parts per billion hexavalent chromium. Clean Water for North Carolina reported that “despite firm scientific evidence that drinking water containing hexavalent chromium can cause cancer and other health effects, the only current standard for chromium in public drinking water supplies is the total chromium MCL of 100ppb – more than 1000 times higher than DHHS’ original health screening level of 0.07ppb.”

What does that mean for homeowners who rely on these wells for their drinking water? It means that the risk for developing cancer increases from one to 7,000 to – at worst – one in 700.

One in 700.

And our state leaders said that was okay. The McCrory administration, a political charade built on the facade of “protecting women and children,” sanctioned this action.

As if we needed one more reason not to trust the McCrory Administration.

Just when we thought our state’s coal ash mess couldn’t get worse, newly obtained emails paint an even graver picture of the McCrory administration’s utter lack of concern for the health and safety of North Carolina citizens.

In an article printed in Saturday’s Winston-Salem Journal, reporter Bertrand Gutiérrez revealed that the state toxicologist, Ken Rudo, rejected the McCrory administration’s attempt to greenwash data showing the elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in over 300 water wells.

Rudo’s refusal to sign-off on what he categorized as “an absolutely scientifically untrue human health statement” deserves praise. But, we must ask ourselves: how could our state have fallen so far as to knowingly expose mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents to a toxin the NC Department of Labor recognizes as cancer-causing?

And now, Rudo is under attack from all sides. At 9:15pm on August 2nd, Governor McCrory’s Chief of Staff held a press conference, refuting Rudo’s claim that McCrory participated in a phone conference with the toxicologist about the ‘do-not-drink’ letters. This came after DHHS called out Rudo’s deposition testimony as false too. The statement from Kendra Gerlach, DHHS spokesperson, included: “The Governor did not participate in that meeting, nor did he summon Ken Rudo. I was the one calling our public health officials, including Rudo.”

How quickly the McCrory flock fall on their swords while also attempting to smear the reputation of Rudo, a dedicated public servant for more than 30 years (and a self-identified Republican who voted for McCrory in 2012). When did telling the truth become a “partisan attack”? Under the McCrory administration, trying to do the right thing has become a professional liability.

No wonder Duke Energy wanted to quash Rudo’s deposition testimony from going public. The corporate polluter couched its request to keep the deposition sealed as a matter of justice, which is ironic coming from an entity that seems to get all it asks for from the current Administration.

“That type of third-person, ‘water cooler’ discussion is not allowed in court and the rules say it should not be in the court of public opinion, either,” noted Paige Sheehan, a Duke Energy spokesperson.

Drop the act, Duke. Those of us not formerly employed by you have zero reason to trust your talking points. Between secret dinners at the Governor’s mansion, to a bill emerging overnight in the NC General Assembly that grants you the power to decide what coal ash to clean up – if any – reflects a system built for you. And who is the architect behind it?

Your number one fan: Governor McCrory. Since taking office in 2012, your former manager remains loyal, ensuring you receive the largest seat at the decision-making table. When Governor McCrory’s cronies at DEQ step out of line and attempt to hold you accountable by levying fines or classifying your coal ash ponds as anything other than low-risk, he appears to wave his wand…and poof! $25.1 million in fines transform into a paltry $7 million, laughable to a company whose 2015 profits exceeded $23 billion.

Governor McCrory’s repeated actions to squash the voices of scientific experts is part of his legacy. His willingness to gamble with a known-cancer causing contaminant – found in the water North Carolina families depend on – is the most egregious, despicable example to date. It’s time for new leadership in Raleigh. The lives of everyday North Carolina families depend on it.

No one wants to be that one in 700. And no one ever should.


[Updated on August 4, 2016 to clarify the “one in 700” risk of developing cancer posed to well owners.]

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