North Carolina officials have delayed a vote on a key coal ash rule amid a dispute over whether state or federal groundwater standards should be part of the rule.

At its November meeting, the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission declined to vote on the state Department of Environmental Quality’s proposed language for its coal ash rule after the chair questioned the inclusion of the state’s groundwater standards. The state’s standards are unique to North Carolina and more stringent than federal standards.

Approximately half of North Carolinians rely on groundwater for drinking water, either from private wells or public water supplies.

The rule will establish requirements for corrective measures in the event of groundwater contamination caused by coal ash impoundments. The commission is expected to vote on the rule in January. The vote will be followed by a public comment period.

Currently, two rule options are before the commission: one does not include groundwater standards and the other includes only North Carolina’s groundwater standards.

During the commission’s Nov. 10 meeting, DEQ staff mentioned that a third version of the rule is being prepared. That version would include only federal groundwater standards, or Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the MCL standards represent “the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water.”

“The MCLs are simply a backstop that’s applicable in every state in the Union,” said Commissioner Tommy Craven, a professional engineer. “Some states don’t do the additional study to figure out what’s applicable to them, but that’s really what was intended: if they did the study they’d have their own numbers, but they can’t be less than MCLs.”

The proposed rules are in response to a coal ash bill passed by the N.C. General Assembly in July which allows for impoundments to be closed in accordance with the EPA’s coal ash rule, thus forcing DEQ to add an official rule to the state code.

Commission chair prefers federal standards

The proposed rule closely mirrors the EPA’s coal ash rule. In September, the commission’s Groundwater and Waste Management Committee requested additional information on the state’s groundwater standards following a presentation on the proposed state rule.

Julie Woosley, DEQ Section Chief with the Hazardous Waste Section, provided an update on the rule at the Nov. 9 Groundwater and Waste Management committee meeting. In her PowerPoint presentation, she included a table that lists both federal standards and state groundwater standards (noted as 2L and IMAC, or interim maximum allowable concentrations).

Gerard “Jerry” Carrol, chair of the Environmental Management and retiree of National Gypsum Company, said he worried about confusing the public by listing both state and federal groundwater standards and that he would “argue toward aligning ourselves more toward the federal standards than the 2L standards.” Later he asked why the state and federal governments have different standards.

Woosley responded, “You can see that the federal standard is always different from the 2L standards, except in the case of arsenic, and it is usually a much lesser standard.” She also explained that the list of contaminants shared during her presentation are the same as those listed in the federal coal ash rule.

The Environmental Management Commission establishes North Carolina’s groundwater standards—with input from DEQ and the state Department of Health and Human Services – according to the lowest of the following criteria: a concentration protective of non-cancerous or systemic health effects that also corresponds to an incremental lifetime cancer risk of one-in-one-million, taste and odor thresholds, the EPA’s MCL standards or the National Secondary Drinking Water Standard.

Dr. Albert Robert Ruben, an EMC commissioner and professor emeritus at N.C. State University countered Carrol by saying, “My preference is to look at the most restrictive standard because that is what is most protective. The implications of this decision are significant.”

Along with the commission’s vice chair, Kevin C. Martin, a soil scientist, Ruben urged the committee to forward both versions of the rule to the full commission the next day, providing both for public comment.

Following the advice of the committee, the commission delayed its vote on the rule until its January 12, meeting, though it is unclear if a third version – with only federal standards – will be presented.

DEQ officials did not wish to comment on a potential third version of the rule.

In the South, most states lack state-specific standards

An April 2016 memo from DEQ’s Director of Legislative Affairs, Mollie Young, to the North Carolina General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission relayed the findings of a review of environmental and health regulations in other southeastern states as they pertain to hexavalent chromium and vanadium groundwater standards. (Both contaminants were listed in “do-not-drink” letters sent to hundreds of North Carolina well owners in 2015.)

“None of the southeastern states have groundwater standards in regulation for hexavalent chromium. However, Alabama has a ‘protective value’ identified as a ‘Risk Assessment Preliminary Screening Value’ (for hexavalent chromium),” Young wrote. She also noted: “None of the southeastern states have adopted vanadium criteria in regulation.”

North Carolina’s current standard for total chromium, which includes hexavalent chromium, is 10 ug/L. North Carolina and California share this standard, which the lowest in the United States. The federal standard is 100 ug/L.

The federal government does not require city water supplies to monitor for vanadium, and only eight states have groundwater standards for vanadium. North Carolina does not have a groundwater standard for vanadium.

In October, Duke University found that hexavalent chromium is widespread in North Carolina’s groundwater. The study’s press release stated, “The contamination doesn’t, however, stem from leaking coal ash ponds as many people feared after state officials tested wells near coal plants last year and detected potentially harmful levels of hexavalent chromium in the water.”

CORRECTION: The article mistakenly listed standard measurements as “mg/L,” or parts per million, instead of “ug/L,” or per billion. The article has been corrected above.

Award-winning independent journalist, filmmaker and author. Rhiannon's film "Coal Ash Chronicles" is in post-production. And, yes, she was named after a Fleetwood Mac song.