Hexavalent Chromium May Be Endemic in Piedmont Well Water

hexavalent-chromiumby James A. Bacon

Hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen, is detectable in 90% of the North Carolina water wells sampled in a Duke University research study, and in many cases exceeds levels deemed safe for drinking water.

The chemical, made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich,” originates not from coal ash ponds but from the natural leaching of mostly volcanic rock in aquifers across the Piedmont region, said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment in a press release issued yesterday.

Piedmont formations with volcanic rocks are common across the southeastern United States, Vengosh noted, so millions of people in regions outside North Carolina with similar aquifers may be exposed to hexavalent chromium without knowing it. Vengosh published his findings Oct. 26 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

The controversy over hexavalent chromium has roiled politics in North Carolina. In 2015 the state’s water-quality officials issued temporary “do not drink” recommendations to residents living near coal-burning plants after tests detected potentially harmful levels of hexavalent chromium in their well water samples. Because elevated levels of chromium typically occur in coal ash, many people assumed the contamination was linked to the coal ash ponds. The Vengosh study, states the Duke press release, is the first to show otherwise.

A similar controversy has raged in Virginia where the compound has been detected in well water of homes near the Bremo Power Station and the Possum Point Power Station where Dominion Virginia Power is de-watering coal ash ponds and has applied for permits to cap the dried coal-combustion residue in place.

The Duke study undoubtedly will change the tenor of the coal ash debate in Virginia, whose Piedmont geology is similar to North Carolina’s. The Duke findings are consistent with Dominion’s contention that the hexavalent chromium found in wells did not originate from its coal ash ponds. Dominion’s own measurements had indicated no such groundwater impact.

But controversy over coal ash disposal will not go away. Tests by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network have found elevated levels of lead in wells near the Possum Point coal ash ponds and also have detected potentially toxic levels of other heavy metals found in coal ash. However, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality tests have not replicated the results.

Meanwhile, the Duke findings raise issues about the safety of well water generally. Speaking about the situation in North Carolina, Vengosh said: “The bottom line is that we need to protect the health of North Carolinians from the naturally occurring threat of hexavalent chromium, while also protecting them from harmful contaminants such as arsenic and selenium, which our previous research has shown do derive from leaking coal ash ponds. The impact of leaking coal ash ponds on water resources is still a major environmental issue.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Hopefully, Vengosh’s findings will elevate the discussion about coal ash in Virginia. The most important takeaway is this: Just because a particular chemical is found in both in coal ash and the water from nearby wells, we cannot assume that the chemical necessarily came from the coal ash. Underground aquifers contain many chemicals that have leached from naturally occurring rocks and minerals. Nature is not pristine. Underground water is not as pure as distilled water. When we start measuring water quality in parts per billion, we will find all sorts of compounds we never imagined were there.

Conversely, just because hexavelent chromium occurs in natural conditions, we cannot assume by analogy that lead, selenium, arsenic or other chemicals found in well water near coal ash ponds are naturally occurring as well. We just don’t know. We need to conduct more comprehensive testing before making multi-billion dollar decisions on the best way to dispose of coal ash and/or commit ourselves to remedies that we (and our descendants) have to live with for hundreds of years.

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25 responses to “Hexavalent Chromium May Be Endemic in Piedmont Well Water

  1. the question is , can the difference between naturally- occurring and manmade contamination be determined?

    And the answer is – yes – if you really want to find out.

    and that’s the response you’d get instead of ruminations about it occurring naturally and stopping there.

    we can “fingerprint” contamination because Hexavalent Chromium is not just one standard material … it varies in concentration as well as other materials it may be combined with or present with.

    The Erin Brockovich story was about that issue – exactly because the polluter also claimed you could not tell the difference… but in the end – they did find the difference and the polluter was, in fact, found to be the polluter – through scientific processes that differentiated between naturally occurring and generated from man-made processes.

    so – if you REALLY want to know – you CAN find out. It sounds like DEQ is really not that interested. Do the researchers point this out?

  2. The ugly truth about hexavalent chromium is that it’s only one of the things in the environment that can kill us, by increasing the risk of cancer or otherwise. Like radon gas and a bunch of other contaminants, there are natural and man-made sources of it, and abatement of the natural source of this one sounds less than easy. Statistically we’re all gonna check outta here before we reach 80 anyway, so what’s the cost-benefit on tackling THIS particular contaminant as opposed to so many others we could be throwing money at? I never liked the absolutist approach to banning all cancer-causing-agents embedded in our 1960s laws because, as we now know, cancer is simply a bad place on the spectrum of things that go wrong when the body’s regulatory mechanisms for cell division break down, which eventually happens to everyone who doesn’t die of something else first, and “cancer-causing agents” are simply those substances in the environment (lots of them) that put more than the usual daily stress on the cell’s regulatory mechanisms. And as for the source of it, what difference does it make, LarryG, if the Cr6 came from man or an ancient volcano? Should we fine the hell out of the former but place a seal of approval on “natural” Cr6? Or should we finess that distinction by banning the consumption of well water in NC entirely?

  3. there are in life – risks – that come from both natural and man-made sources.

    just because they do come from man-made sources does not excuse them coming from man-made sources and really – even from natural sources – we want to be informed about the degree of risk – and what mitigation is feasible.

    we do not choose – to incur any level of risk – we do seek information about what harms us and how to avoid it if we can.

    so just because something exists naturally does NOT mean we’re okay with drinking it at 10 times the natural concentration –

    so what exactly is a reasonable process for addressing such risks?

    I would say this – we don’t pretend we don’t know when we could know.

    we don’t choose to not know – when we maybe could or should know.

    we don’t do stupid stuff like equating natural presence – at any concentration with a man-made presence of any concentration – and say we “don’t know” and that’s it – we don’t need to know.

    lead occurs naturally in the environment – and for years it also existed in paint and gasoline… ditto with mercury.. and I can name dozens of others .

    if we follow some folks logic – we “overreacted” to lead in paint and gasoline, eh?

    I’m not an ideologue on this – but I’m also not an ignorati…

  4. Where I lived in NJ we had natural radium in the drinking water. The solution by our gov’t leaders was to dilute it below the EPA guidelines. I was not too happy as treatment then blending was an option.

    OK James…I know a lot about chemistry, but I cannot identify the molecule in your headline picture. I can tell it is definitely not Cr+ (the topic of this article). I am guessing maybe this is the specialty chemical from the WV tank spill a few year back.

  5. good catch Tbill!!! Fess up Bacon!!

    also… one of the interesting things about private residential wells in Va is that there are no govt standards. It’s totally up to the well owner to determine what is in the water – and what, if anything to do about it. VaTech does offer well water testing on a periodic basis – but it’s purely a FYI service and anything in the results is totally up to the owner with no govt rules.

    The thing that happens with a company causing contamination is that if a person’s well is contaminated from a nearby operation – and they can prove it with scientific analysis – then they can file a civil suit for damages – UNLESS the State has essentially granted them “approval” to leave as is or do certain things but not others. At that point – the ability to file a civil suit or a class action suit is severely undermined…

    I’m no lawyer but Acbar is so maybe he can weigh in on this and tell me I’m wrong…eh?

  6. here’s where we go wrong. It’s when we say that because “something” occurs naturally in the environment that can harm us – that such risks coming from man-made are similar and especially so if the same substance occurs naturally as well as from man-made.

    that’s a huge mistake and it’s no coincidence that it’s the argument you hear from polluters and from folks sympathetic to the idea that life itself is a risk and we can’t make ourselves 100% safe from such risks – so accept it and stop harassing polluters with onerous regulations that increase costs to companies, customers and taxpayers.

    I call this approach the conflation equivalence conundrum because it starts with folks conflating issues then equivalencing them after conflating.

    Using that approach – Dominion can say – and have folks seeming agree with them: ” Well hells bells.. if Hexavalent Chromium occurs naturally then why are we being singled out to account for it”?

    or worse – if it already occurs in concentrations that exceeds current standards – what’s a little more of it to harm or how do we know that all of it is not naturally occurring and our emissions are actually lower in concentration so no harm….

    that’s the kind of foolishness that sometimes progresses.

    rather than getting to a focus on specifics – the whole thing gets blow up into
    something that is “inconsequential”….

    then if the state regulators agree with that concept – then the polluter is essentially indemnified from being held accountable – forever – because the state “approved” their activities… as little different/difficult to measure, than naturally occurring stuff.

  7. I can tell you what I thought the chemical was when I posted it. I Googled “hexavalent chromium,” and that’s what I found. But I never studied chemistry and I would not vouch for it.

  8. “Well hells bells.. if Hexavalent Chromium occurs naturally then why are we being singled out to account for it”?

    I haven’t heard a single person utter that statement or anything remotely resembling that statement, and I defy you to find someone in a position of authority or responsibility who has.

    The point is this: If hexavalent chromium occurs naturally, we cannot assume that the presence of hexavalent chromium in well water can be explained by proximity to nearby coal ash ponds. There might be a connection, there might not be. It requires deeper analysis.

    Do you really want to argue with that?

    • what I’m arguing with is Dominion and DEQs assertion that there is no proof AND they’re opposed to further testing to find out.

      you say “It requires deeper analysis.” I agree. Can you show me where Dominion agrees and wants to get the answer? How about DEQ?

  9. “I can tell you what I thought the chemical was when I posted it. I Googled “hexavalent chromium,” and that’s what I found. But I never studied chemistry and I would not vouch for it.”

    OMG this is my whole problem with the internet we get liberal arts majors blogging about how bad chemistry is for society…but at least I know Jim Bacon is non-partisan.

    • re: ” but at least I know Jim Bacon is non-partisan”… I used to think that …. but now I’m a skeptic… he keeps referencing questionable “studies” then caveats them – the problem is they’re studies mostly from the same biases… he’s not equal opportunity on his “studies” – most seem to feed one side… tsk tsk

  10. I don’t know Dominion’s position on further testing, but as I recall, DEQ said only that it had no current plans to do further testing. Given the results of the Duke study, that attitude might change. I don’t know how much the testing would cost, but I think we should do it. People should pressure the General Assembly to pony up the funds.

    • I asked you what Dominion is wanting to do and what DEQ is saying needs to be done. It’s not up to the GA to demonstrate that Dominion’s activities have not harmed ground water. and since when does DEQ say the GA has to fund it instead of DEQ requiring it ?

      you’re weaseling here Jim.. admit it.

      • Dominion is the one who is claiming that they do not have to excavate and remove the material – UNLIKE what is being done in other states – the burden is on them to prove that their claim that leaving it in place is safe – IS true. It’s NOT the responsibility of taxpayers to prove that it’s not.

        Why would you defend Dominion refusing to take responsibility to prove there is no contamination and therefore okay to cap in place?

        that’s outrageous.

  11. Total B.S., Larry, I’ve posted on a number of studies issued by environmentalists and their allies.

    • Nope. The ones you normally post from the environmentalist – you often openly question – you sometimes mock.. you almost never accept at face value but “caveat” that further study needs to be done.

      the real issue on this particular on is NOT the “news” that HC occurs naturally – we’ve known that – for a while – – it’s no great revelation. It’s the first thing that accused polluters often use as a defense.

      The issue is does the SAME TYPE and similar concentration of it appear at the coal sites than it you went out 5 -10 miles or more from those sites? Is the “fingerprint” where the private wells are – the same or different than the “fingerprint” at the coal ash site?

      that’s something that CAN be “studied”…

      where is THAT study?

      Again – this goes to whether we actually want to know or not and the burden on Dominion is to prove that nothing further needs to be done because it’s not a threat to groundwater. That’s their responsibility – not taxpayers.

  12. No, I’m not weaseling, you’re making irresponsible statements. The one thing we appear to agree on is that additional testing is desirable. I don’t know how much it costs to test hundreds of wells around the state, but I suspect it would run into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. If that sum of money is not in DEQ’s budget, DEQ can’t run the tests. Where will it get the money? Maybe the McAuliffe administration can shuffle money around, although that won’t be easy given how tight the budget is. Otherwise, DEQ would get the money from a General Assembly appropriation.

    What do you propose? If DEQ doesn’t have the money in its budget, should it just go ahead and spend money it doesn’t have?

    • this cost belongs to Dominion – not taxpayers because Dominion is the one asking for more lenient requirement based on little more than their opinion. Taxpayers do not own these costs.

      It’s up to Dominion to prove what they claim if they want to cap in place – not up to taxpayers to pay.

      in your world – taxpayers have to prove that pollution came form polluters rather than polluters proving they have not polluted?

      what do I propose? I propose that if Dominion wants to risk capping in place that they pay to prove that it’s a safe approach – OR they pay to excavate… or whatever it takes to assure that there will be no contamination.

      this is a cost that belongs to them!!

  13. I can accuse you of buggering little boys. Is it my responsibility to prove you guilty or your responsibility to prove yourself innocent?

    • you could but you’d only expose the flaws in your logic. Polluters are responsible for demonstrating that the remediation they propose – is safe – that’s THEIR COST – not taxpayers.

      how do you reason here guy?

      with your reasoning – any company would set up shop and start discharging and it would be up to taxpayers to go sample the discharge and prove it’s not safe.

      how do you reason that way?

      it’s bizarre…

  14. aside from all of this – you missed an important aspect of this story – that was in your favor –

    ” The researchers collected water from 376 wells both near and far from coal ash ponds. Hexavalent chromium was found in about 90 percent of the wells, some at levels considered unsafe in drinking water.

    **** THIS PART ****

    Then they used tracers developed by Vengosh’s team to identify geochemical “fingerprints” that can trace contaminants to their source.

    Contaminants leaking from coal ash present a distinct geochemical profile of elements such as boron, strontium and arsenic, Vengosh said. When his team found water with hexavalent chromium in it, he said, “we see a totally different chemistry.”

    **** This PROVES that the coal ash is not the source of the HC !!! *************

    Finding high levels of the contaminant over a large area, regardless of how close to ash ponds, supports the conclusion that ash isn’t the source, he said.

    The findings don’t mean ash ponds are benign, Vengosh said. Previous research has found other contaminants including arsenic, a carcinogen, and selenium leaking from them.

    Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article110465702.html#storylink=cpy

  15. The bigger question is harder to answer, and that is, does it make more sense to cap in place or to excavate the coal ash? Even if the coal ash does contribute to contamination, and it probably does, the area is already contaminated, such that excavation and removal is not necessarily the best answer.

    There is also an awkward issue here for EPA/DEQ/Dominion/Congress in that coal ash was in the past labeled as a non-hazardous waste, which allowed freedom to manage coal ash disposal in a variety of ways. So putting the whole blame on Dominion is a little over-simplified.

    It’s a little like Superfund, which was created to to clean up hazardous waste landfills. For Superfund, the closest “deep pockets” corporations had to pay for clean up (“joint and several” responsibility). But I would think cap-in-place was a commonly used technique. In this case we have outsiders trying to specify the best clean-up-approach, and they are opting for the most expensive option.

  16. @Tbill – yes but does “already contaminated” mean no more – ?

    I don’t put the blame on Dominion for the original decision but at this point in time – what’s the prudent way to proceed?

    other states have decided that leaving it in place risks wider and more concentrated contamination and have taken the safe rather than sorry path.

    If “cap-in place” subsequently leads to wider and higher levels of contamination – who should pay for the cleanup at that point?

    Dominion essentially is willing to risk that no increased contamination will result but the want DEQ to indemnify them if they are wrong.

    I don’t think that’s a proper way to handle the risk and consequences.

    If Dominion wants to risk the future- I’m fine with that – as long as they post a bond (insurance) that will come into play – if they are wrong.

    the risk should not be shifted to taxpayers and interesting you mention superfund because superfund also said the cleanup should not be the financial responsibility of taxpayers but instead the industry.

    so what “industry” will pay to clean up the coal ash in the future if it turns out that Dominion is wrong about it sitting in place and not spreading?

    I maintain that this is Dominion’s responsibility – and I give them the ability to make a choice – but making that choice does not absolve them of ultimate responsibility one way or the other.

    they’re wanting to cap and then walk away – and if things go sideways later on – they want the taxpayers to be responsible. No conscientious person should sign off on that idea… in my view.

  17. Pingback: Closure of Coal Ash Ponds at Dominion and APCO Power Stations in Virginia; State Water Control Board on Jan. 14, 2016, Approves Dominion Proposal for Drainage into Quantico Creek and James River; Board Decision Challenged in Court, Two Settlements Announc

  18. Pingback: Closure of Coal Ash Ponds at Dominion and APCO Power Stations in Virginia, 2015-2017; State Water Control Board on Jan. 14, 2016, Approves Dominion Proposal for Drainage into Quantico Creek and James River; Board Decision Challenged in Court, Two Settleme

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