The Green Scene

A half-dozen environmental groups say the state has mismanaged a fund established to ensure safe drinking water for residents using wells.

Last August, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources allocated $300,000 from the Bernard Allen Emergency Drinking Water Fund—the entire initial allotment for the fund—for a two-mile water-line extension that benefited just four households. (The fund received another $615,000 in 2007.) In a Jan. 22 letter to DENR, Clean Water for North Carolina, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and other groups called for better oversight of the money. They also enclosed a list of proposed guidelines for future spending, citing notification and well-testing as top priorities.

The water line provided relief for the Fox clan of Sylva, an extended family whose drinking water was contaminated with benzene—a cancer-causing chemical that had leached into their water supply from a gas station uphill from their homes. A retirement home serving some 55 residents also plans to tap into the line. All told, the project—the remainder of which was funded by the N.C. Rural Center and Jackson County—will cost about $740,000. On a per-household basis, that makes it the state’s most expensive drinking-water fix to date, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

Gracia O’Neill of Clean Water for North Carolina says the environmental groups that urged lawmakers to create the emergency fund in 2006 had envisioned it addressing a lack of legal protection for state residents who draw their drinking water from wells. “There are a lot of instances where the state knows about contamination, but they often never tell the neighbors, because they don’t have the funding or the mandate to do so,” she asserts. (Asked about this, Communications Director Diana Kees said that while she couldn’t address O’Neill’s statement directly, DENR is financially limited in its ability to address every ground-water contamination problem.)

And Hope Taylor, Clean Water’s executive director, notes: “From the beginning, we were concerned that unless there were clear guidelines for selecting sites to get funding … the [money] would be used up at a few sites, instead of providing benefits to dozens or even hundreds of well users. So we called for that first funding to be used for notification and testing. In August, it was all handed over for a single project—an appallingly inequitable use of resources. It’s time for communities to be sure the fund is used as it was intended by all the advocates who worked so hard for it. We just can’t let this happen again.”

DENR officials have defended that decision, however, saying the water-line extension resolved a dire problem and was completely appropriate, according to the language of the statute. “It came in, it met the qualifications, it got funding,” said Kees. A Jan. 24 Asheville Citizen-Times editorial supports the agency’s stance. “The solution may not be perfect,” it states, “but we side with the assessment of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the governor’s office: It was a serious situation that needed correcting.”

Meanwhile, a recent development closer to home also points to the need for a more effective system of well testing and notification. Two households three-quarters of a mile from the abandoned CTS of Asheville factory were recently notified that their well water contains unsafe levels of trichloroethylene, the principal contaminant at the hazardous-waste site. Late last year, state and federal environmental agencies tested about 70 wells in the area after months of pressure from residents and elected officials. As a temporary measure, the agencies have provided affected households with bottled water.

State and environmental agencies had documented contamination at the CTS site as early as 1991.

And according to O’Neill, DENR documented signs of contamination near the Fox residence in Sylva as early as 1992. “Had a similar [emergency drinking-water] fund been in place in ‘92,” she says, “and if it had been used for the much cheaper and more cost-effective well testing and notification … the Fox family likely would not have been put at risk.”

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