North Carolina's Next Hot Mess
The untold story of uranium-contaminated water in the state capital's suburbs (and why no one knows about it)
The number of North Carolinians at risk of uranium poisoning is at least 400,000 across the northeastern Piedmont. But because of the top-to-bottom failure of good government we detail in this exclusive Insightus investigation, it remains unknown how many more of the state’s 3.5 million residents who drink, cook and bathe with private well water may also be at risk.
RELATED CONTENT:You’re a North Carolina well user worried about uranium in your water. Here’s what to do (blog)
The Invisible Hazard in NC Politicians’ Own Back Yard
In the spring of 2010, a courier delivered a small, seemingly unremarkable jar of water to the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health in downtown Raleigh, the state’s capital. By all appearances, the cupful of clear water it contained was little different from the more than 7,000 other such well water samples submitted to the state lab annually by county environmental health departments across the state.
The water had been drawn from the kitchen tap of a ranch home on Raleigh’s pleasant, tree-lined Stillmeadow Road, just five miles east of the lab’s parent agency, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. It would prove to be free of all the most familiar toxic threats like arsenic, lead, and mercury. But the technician who performed the analysis must have been jolted by the result of one additional test requested by the county health department - a test for a toxic chemical the lab had not been asked to perform in years.
That chemical was uranium – the radioactive heavy metal at the heart of atomic bombs and nuclear power plants. Medical researchers have long known that prolonged ingestion of uranium-tainted water can cause severe kidney damage and may contribute to cancers, birth defects, and other medical issues as well.
According to the test results which the lab technician entered at her computer (Supplemental Figure 1), the backyard well which quenched the thirst of the family on Raleigh’s Stillmeadow Road contained more than ten times the maximum uranium level allowable under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
But neither EPA nor the state regulates private well water quality in North Carolina. The federal agency’s regulatory authority extends only over public water utilities, not private wells. Nevertheless, its standards for those public supplies – such as its “Maximum Contaminant Level” standard of 30 micrograms per liter for uranium – are widely accepted as guides by which to judge the safety or hazard of homeowners’ well water, too. If the family on Stillmeadow Road had received that same cupful of water from a public utility rather than from their own well it would have been in violation of federal law, due to the unacceptable health hazard the water posed.
As documented by state lab data analyzed by Insightus for this report (nearly 55,000 lab test reports from 2008 through mid-2016; see Supplemental Figure 2 for methods), that first alarming uranium result triggered a frenzy of further testing by concerned Wake County health officials. Over the next four years they would submit more than 400 additional well water samples to the state lab for uranium testing. More than 200 of those – 51% – would prove to contain detectable levels of the radioactive metal, and 40 of those – 9.4% of all wells tested – would exceed the EPA’s safety limit (see map, below). The most heavily contaminated wells of all (at more than sixty times the EPA’s limit; Supplemental Figure 3) would be found right on the eastern county line, in new subdivisions sprouting up around Zebulon. There, Wake County adjoins neighboring Johnston, Nash, and Franklin Counties - presenting the possibility that those counties’ wells might be contaminated too.
Uranium (U) well test results for Wake County, NC, 2010-2015 compiled by Insightus from NC State Laboratory of Public Health records. Grey outlines: major metropolitan areas of Wake County (the state capital, Raleigh, is highlighted in blue). Small black circles: private water wells tested and found free of uranium (below the test’s detection limit of 1 microgram per liter). Medium yellow circles: wells testing positive for uranium, at or below the EPA' Maximum Contaminant Limit for uranium of 30 micrograms per liter. Large red circles: wells with uranium above the EPA limit (range: 31 to 1,970 micrograms per liter). Not shown on this map are 6 wells testing above the EPA limit, but for which valid addresses were not included in state lab records. Note that at this map’s scale many circles marking neighboring wells overlap and obscure each other. Data from https://slphreporting.ncpublichealth.com/EnvironmentalSciences/InOrganicChemistry/Default.aspx, accessed July, 2016.
A Can of Worms
When Wake County officials reached out to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in 2014 seeking its help with this increasingly obvious threat, they were "advised" by DHHS officials to "consider the can of worms you’re opening up," according to a past county health official interviewed for this report on condition of anonymity. It was a fair point, although not an encouraging one. The county was, at that time, dealing with a real estate developer's complaint that its uranium testing program had made it difficult for the company to sell some of its new homes, which had tested above the EPA’s uranium limit.
That developer (Lefrancois Construction, according to our source), did not responded to repeated invitations to comment for this report. State and county records show that between 2013 and 2015 Lefrancois sold three new homes in the small Aventon Glen Drive development, two miles southeast of Rolesville. Two of those homes’ wells posted pre-sale uranium test results 32 and 19 times the EPA’s limit.
Faced with the displeasure of developers and the discouraging advice of state officials, Wake County's ongoing investigation soon became invisible. Following that “can of worms” warning it stopped sending water samples to the state lab, sending them instead to a commercial lab. According to Evan Kane, who joined the county as a hydrogeologist late last year, it did this in part because the private lab is "better, faster, and cheaper" than the state’s. In 2014, the Republican-controlled state legislature authorized a 35% increase in the state lab's well water testing fees following years of slashing state appropriations to the lab's parent agency, the Division of Public Health. In effect, the state had 'shoved down' this cost of public health surveillance onto the counties, sending many in search of less costly alternatives. "A growing number of counties are analyzing their water samples at private labs," confirmed Wilson Mize of the Division of Public Health.
That emerging privatization trend comes at a subtle but serious risk to the state's citizens, by creating a barrier to public health surveillance for problems like today's uranium hazard. Unlike the state lab’s test data, which are readily available on the web to citizens and state officials alike, private labs' test results are invisible to the public and to state health officials. Our analysis of Wake County well tests ends at mid-2015 because county health officials have not fulfilled our public records request (submitted on June 10th) for its more recent uranium test data.
Of course, counties may choose to publish their test results themselves, as Wake County does with its online iMaps tool. But our comparison of iMaps data with the state lab's complete data set revealed that iMaps fails to provide uranium test data for 83% of the Wake County homes which have tested above the EPA limit. If a wealthy, sophisticated county like Wake can't properly perform public disclosure, the state's many poor rural counties are even less likely to do it well, or even to try.
Don't Tell the Neighbors
Johnston and Franklin county health officials interviewed for this report stated that neither DHHS nor Wake County had ever informed them of the potential public health threat just across their own county lines. According to Johnston County’s Larry Sullivan (recipient of the Health Supervisor of the Year award from the state’s Environmental Health Supervisors Association), "this [Insightus’ question to him] is the first I’ve heard of the Wake County problem. I have not received any type of written or other communication about this." Similarly, Franklin County Environmental Health supervisor Jeff Wood said, "I have not heard anything about this problem before now, or had any discussion with Wake County about it."
According to the state lab records we reviewed, Johnston County has submitted no samples for uranium testing to the state Laboratory for Public Health. "We are only testing for what the state requires," Sullivan said. Franklin County has submitted just two samples for uranium testing, one in 2010 and one in 2013 (both at homeowners’ requests, according to Wood). Both tested positive for uranium, but at levels below the EPA’s limit.
Franklin and Johnston counties are not alone in not conducting uranium surveillance. Indeed, ignoring uranium appears to be the norm in North Carolina, according to the state lab's data. Other than Wake, only one North Carolina county has requested substantial numbers of uranium tests since 2008: Forsyth County, 100 miles to Wake’s west, with 67 such tests from 2012 and 2014. Forsyth County environmental health director Robert Stott told us, "That was before my time here. Someone had cancer, and a doctor ordered his water tested. So they started uranium testing on all new wells, but we stopped in 2014 because we weren’t finding much. Those tests are expensive." Two of Forsyth’s 67 tests were above the EPA limit.
Asked whether DHHS’s Division of Public Health had attempted to coordinate a response among Wake’s potentially affected neighboring counties after Wake County officials requested the Division's help, DHHS state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo told us "Wake never told us the uranium contamination was on its county line. We never looked at a map of the data. It never occurred to us before this [our interview with Rudo] that those other counties might have problems, too. Our job was to help Wake County with its risk assessment." Rudo’s supervisor, Mina Shehee, said "We don’t do epidemiological research. We don’t go out looking for patterns. Unless we’re made aware of something, we wouldn’t routinely go looking for something that might or might not be there." Rudo added, "You [Insightus] may be doing a very positive thing here by calling this to our attention. You can be sure that we’ll discuss this with those other counties now."
Where Did the Uranium Come From - And When?
It is likely that Wake County’s groundwater contamination issue is a natural problem rather than a man-made pollution issue, according to experts consulted for this report.
Unlike many other toxic chemicals, uranium’s industrial users are easy to track, because they are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NRC license holders nearest to Wake County’s hot zone are a uranium processing facility in Wilmington (150 miles away, on the coast), and the Harris nuclear power plant, 25 miles away in the southwestern corner of the county (where water tests are consistently uranium-free; see the map above). Both sites, according to geochemists, are too far away from the county’s hot zone to be plausible sources of Wake's groundwater contamination.
Instead, its most likely source is an underground rock formation known to geologists as the Rolesville Series. Also known as the Rolesville Granite, it is a band of granite bedrock long known to be enriched in natural uranium (as is most granite), precisely underlaying the distribution of the ‘hot’ wells across eastern Wake County and further extending across portions of Vance, Warren, Franklin, Nash, Halifax, Edgecombe, Wilson and Johnston counties, which have a combined rural (and therefore well-dependent) population of about 400,000 according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Under favorable conditions of water chemistry, uranium is known to dissolve into groundwater from such granite bedrock, which is also found across some western portions of North Carolina's Piedmont. A 2009 study by Duke University geochemists documented groundwater uranium concentrations "1 to 2 orders of magnitude higher in the Rolesville Granite than in the other rock types" of Wake County.
More difficult to answer – and much more puzzling – is the question of how long uranium contamination has been an issue in eastern Wake County. A 1973 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission study, the National Uranium Resource Evaluation (NURE), tested water from hundreds of thousands of private wells across the U.S. in search of exploitable uranium deposits. Using highly sensitive and reliable assays performed by experts at national labs like Oak Ridge and Savannah River, NURE included tests of 88 Wake County wells arrayed on roughly a 3 x 3 mile grid pattern. Our review of the NURE data revealed that none of those 88 Wake County wells tested in the 1970s had uranium levels exceeding today’s EPA limit. Judging by NURE’s data, Wake County’s groundwater today may be contaminated with substantially higher levels of uranium than it was in the 1970s, raising the possibility that groundwater chemistry may be changing in the Piedmont (perhaps due to increasingly intensive pumping in rapidly growing communities like Wake), creating conditions that promote the dissolution of uranium from bedrock into the groundwater.
A Tragedy of Errors
Wake County’s (and North Carolina’s?) groundwater uranium contamination crisis – underappreciated and uncommunicated for years by public health officials – offers ample blame to share among many government entities and individuals. In descending order of their power to address the problem, they include:
1. Congress, which specifically excluded private water wells from EPA monitoring requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, leaving citizens (like the 35% of North Carolinians who rely on wells) undefended.
2. The North Carolina General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory who, since Republicans’ takeover of state government beginning in 2011, have presided over dramatic budget cuts such as the 30% cut in state funding for DHHS’s Division of Public Health between 2011 and 2015, leaving the weakened agency less able to respond effectively to this crisis.
3. North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services and its Division of Public Health, whose officials failed to promote a coordinated statewide response to this public health threat which its own laboratory had documented.
4. County Departments of Environmental Health which failed to share critical public health information across county lines.
5. Real estate developers, who fear the possible financial impacts of, and strenuously oppose, more wide-ranging testing of new wells than North Carolina's current inadequate laws require.
6. Individual homeowners, very few of whom regularly test their families’ own well water, according to health officials.
Fixing This Mess
The appropriate immediate response to North Carolina’s new hot mess is to add uranium to the short list of chemicals which state law currently requires new private wells to be tested for. We call upon state legislators to introduce and pass such legislation as soon as possible, and upon Gov. McCrory to sign it into law without delay. And because existing wells – those brought into service before the state's current new well testing requirements were enacted in 2008 – greatly outnumber those newer wells, the state must also fund and launch an urgent surveillance effort to assess the risk to families living in older homes, most of whose wells have never been tested, as well.
Adding uranium to the short list of chemicals for which new wells must be tested would do much to relieve the pressure, from both state agencies and real estate developers, which currently discourages county health departments from adequately assessing uranium’s threat. It would also relieve property owners of the agonizing choice they face today: whether to voluntarily test their own wells for uranium, and risk the negative impact the results might have on their property value, or to avoid testing, and risk instead the health of their own families.
From a public policy perspective, the lesson of North Carolina’s new hot mess is that state government - including agencies such as the Division of Public Health - have a critical role to play in coordinating statewide surveillance and response across the insular silos of North Carolina’s 100 individual county health departments - silos that are currently enshrined in antiquated state laws. Draconian cuts to those state agencies’ budgets, like those the Division has suffered in recent years, are a false economy, trading human lives for tax dollars.
As State House Representative Graig Meyer (whose district borders Wake County) commented to us for this report: "This is an important reminder of why North Carolina needs strong enforcement of our rules for safe water. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has been rolling back enforcement mechanisms over the last few years. Seeing this data should remind all of us that our government needs to be strong enough to protect our health and safety. I hope we can work across party lines to address this."
Hope Taylor, Executive Director of Clean Water for North Carolina, told us: "When concerned and well-intended state and local officials aren’t passing along significant concerns to their colleagues in other areas, it’s clear the lack of a system for surveillance and notification can do significant harm to public health. Well users are particularly vulnerable, as their water supplies are not routinely tested, except for newly licensed wells and then only for a very limited set of parameters. As a state with among the highest percentages of well users, it’s critical that we require testing for uranium and other contaminants, natural and man-made, that are reasonably likely to be present in a given area. We must have transparency, surveillance of publicly available data for new threats, and require sharing across the state. An annual assessment of newly identified threats to generate proposals for improved education, testing and mitigation is critical as well. All of that requires greater budget support from the legislature, not the slashing that public health and environmental programs have suffered in recent years."
Postscript: The False Security of Privilege
It's hard to miss the irony of North Carolina’s new hot mess – endangering, as it does, affluent citizens who are fortunate enough to afford homes with steep six-figure price tags in some of North Carolina’s most desirable communities like Raleigh and its suburbs.
As detailed in a previous Insightus report, North Carolina’s better known groundwater crisis – the poisoning of private wells in rural working class neighborhoods surrounding Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps – has met with a similarly ineffectual response from state government. But unlike the widespread concern we expect the uranium threat will now elicit from lawmakers and the public, the coal ash threat has, so far, met mostly with indifferent shrugs from all but a handful of activists.
The irony of Wake County’s uranium crisis is that it lurks beneath the manicured lawns of some of the very same state officials to whom the victims of coal ash poisoning have appealed – unsuccessfully so far – for aid and justice in their own time of crisis.
RELATED CONTENT:You’re a North Carolina well user worried about uranium in your water. Here’s what to do (blog)
Updated 12 August 2016 11:00 PM Eastern: The number of Wake County well tests above the EPA limit is 40 (9.4% of all tests), rather than the previously reported values of 42 and 10%, and the number of wells testing above the EPA limit not shown in the figure is 6, not 7.
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Supplement 1: Wake County's First Recorded U Test