Hundreds of homeowners across the state are facing a critical question: should they drink the water that comes out of their taps?
They live next to Duke Energy coal ash ponds and they've gotten two very different letters from the state: one that tells them they shouldn't drink their water because it has harmful toxins in it and one that says they should forget about the first letter because their water is as safe to drink as municipal tap water.
"We're dealing with a lot right now with the coal ash issue," said Jennifer Worrell. "I have lived here all my life. My momma and daddy built a house here and we are probably about a thousand foot from the HF Lee plant."
Worrell lives in the shadow of one of Duke Energy's 14 current or former coal-fired power plants. Her family's private wells were among nearly two hundred tested by the state in the wake of the coal ash spill into the Dan River on Feb. 2, 2014.
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Worrell's well tested positive for elevated levels of a less harmful toxin. Her mother's well registered higher than normal levels of hexavalent chromium, a potentially cancer-causing heavy metal that was first "popularized" in the movie "Erin Brockovich."
Her mother received a letter from the state reading, in part, "The North Carolina Division of Public Health recommends that your well not be used for drinking and cooking."
Duke Energy started delivering to Worrell's mother's home one gallon of water per person in the house (2) per day. And to learn more, Worrell says she called the person who sent the letter advising them not to drink their water: State Toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo.
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Worrell learned that buried in state code, there's an 'acceptable level of risk' when it comes to what's in your groundwater and whether you might get cancer from it: one in a million (if you drink it your whole life).
Worrell's mother, like more than a hundred others who got do-not-drink letters, faced a much greater risk of getting sick than one in a million.
The do-not-drink letter didn't name the source of the toxins in their water but it did confirm what Worrell had long believed. Her water wasn't safe to drink.
Then, last month, her mother and more than a hundred others in the state got another letter from the state, saying their water was safe to drink.
RELATED: ARE WAYNE COUNTY WELLS NEAR COAL ASH PONDS REALLY SAFE?
"Why are they confusing people?" Worrell asked.
Instead of turning on the tap, Worrell picked up the phone to call the man she'd talked to before, Rudo.
"I called him last week and was told he was on leave," Worrell said, beside herself. "He is our state toxicologist. I'm not really sure what or how he just all of a sudden takes a leave of absence."
"They're retreating from their own expert's advice," said Pete Harrison, an attorney with the advocacy group Waterkeeper Alliance. Harrison has been tracking the coal ash situation in North Carolina for years. He says the state is wrong when it advises people in those "do-drink" advisory letters that their water is as safe to drink as municipal water.
"The amounts of hexavalent chromium showing up in wells near Duke's coal ash pits are much higher than those numbers showing up in public water supplies. And regardless of where the contamination is coming from, the state has assumed the duty to protect the public here. They've gotten involved, they started giving people advice and now they're giving people dangerous and reckless advice that it's safe to drink water that is absolutely not safe to drink."
With Rudo on a leave of absence, we sat down with the State Health Director, Dr. Randall Williams. He's new on the job. A gynecologist by trade, he ran for mayor in Raleigh in 2011 before being appointed to the post at the Department of Health and Human Services by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Watch our full interview with Dr. Randall Williams below
"We acted very cautiously," Williams said of the decision to issue "do-not-drink" letters. "But as we always do in public health, for that matter, science, once we step back, we try to remain humble enough to evolve our position if the facts warrant it."
And Williams said they do warrant a change of mind. "Our knowledge is always evolving and I think we would be the first to say this is an emerging field that, in an abundance of caution, we were very cautious, I think now that we've had time, we feel that we now think their water is safe to drink."
While the data from wells around the state didn't change, the state's official assessment of how dangerous things are changed substantially. Williams said hexavalent chromium is present in 70% of the water supply in the United States. "When you look around the country," he said, "we were holding 240 well owners to a standard that, literally, nobody else in the United States was being held to."
He also said he doesn't believe the risk levels associated with hexavalent chromium are accurate.
"The cancer slope curve is calculated off mice," he said, "mice models. Not humans. I'm not sure in my years of practicing, I saw a case of stomach cancer. It's not a common cancer."
But advocates point out the toxins in many of these communities and private wells suggest significantly elevated cancer risk. "I've heard one in 700," acknowledged Williams. But he went on to say, "If you look at those statistics, in a country of 315 million people, how many cases of cancer, stomach cancer would you have in a year, at 1 in 700? I think if you'll look that up, I think you'll see that that prevalence doesn't match up."
Williams also pointed out that, with the exception of California, no other state has specific rules for hexavalent chromium and says the federal EPA may set standards as soon as this December. "The EPA is going to issue theirs, at this point, almost 9 years of study of that very issue of the risk of hexavalent chromium causing cancer in humans. And it seems to us the prudent thing to do is to listen to them who've been studying it a lot longer than we have and align everybody in the state of North Carolina with their evaluation."
Advocates aren't buying it.
"So now the main spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services is a gynecologist with no known training in toxicology?" Harrison asked rhetorically. "Why don't we have an actual toxicologist out there answering these questions like we did in the beginning?"
"The state is just trying to find reasons to ignore their own standard," Harrison continued. "Nobody at DHHS or in the McCrory Administration is contesting Dr. Rudo's findings about the levels of risk involved here. They're not questioning that, they're not saying there was an error in the math or anything like that, they are simply turning their backs and finding other reasons not to worry about the troubling findings Ken Rudo came up with."
Williams would only say that Rudo is on "requested leave." He couldn't say whether Rudo agrees with the state's "evolved" position but did say the state's new, acting toxicologist does.
"Well, he's on requested leave right now, so I can answer that from a personnel standpoint," Williams said.
Why isn't the acting toxicologist taking a leading role like Rudo?
Williams: "It would be my belief that the state health director should issue the policy of the division."
Back in Goldsboro, Jennifer Worrell says something doesn't smell right. "It's shady," she said. "I have done everything I know to do to try and get answers from somebody. We all want answers here. It's all about doing the right thing."
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