3 months later, NC science panel still without members
Posted 2:30 p.m. Thursday
Updated 4:41 p.m. Thursday
Raleigh, N.C. — Three months after state leaders announced they were forming an expert science panel to advise regulators and public health officials on everything from coal ash contaminants to GenX, agencies are still working to appoint members of the group.
Gov. Roy Cooper has repeatedly pointed to the formation of the Science Advisory Board as a tool the state will use to help protect people from new and unregulated chemicals using the best available scientific evidence. Their recommendations may upend the state's requirements for the water filters Duke Energy must supply to homeowners living near its coal ash pits. They could also impact how the state Department of Environmental Quality will regulate largely unstudied compounds, such as GenX, found in the Cape Fear River.
An announcement Thursday afternoon from DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services named a chair for the nascent Science Advisory Panel and a first meeting date in two weeks. Jamie Bartram, a professor at the School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will helm the group appointed by the secretaries of both agencies. But a DEQ spokesman said the remaining members will be announced "as soon as possible" once they're confirmed.
"Nearly 50 names were put forward to serve on the board from across the state, and we've narrowed that down and plan to announce the members in the next few days," spokesman Jamie Kritzer said in an email. "This panel will provide critical guidance on long-term issues, so it's important that we take our time and get top experts in the state to serve."
State officials initially said in July those members would be appointed at the end of the month.
The delay means well owners living near several of Duke's coal ash ponds, many of whom have been using bottled water for drinking and cooking for almost two-and-a-half years, are still waiting for final information about their permanent drinking water options. By state law, Duke must provide residents near the ash ponds with alternative sources of water – either new water lines or filtration systems – by October 2018.
With the Science Advisory Board not scheduled to meet until Oct. 23, residents may be running out of time.
"They haven't even assembled yet," Cathy Cralle Jones, an attorney representing homeowners near several of Duke's plants, said. "How are they even going to begin to grapple with good advice in the length of time needed to solve these problems?"
Delay rankles advocates for drinking water
Leaders of DEQ and DHHS announced the formation of the panel in a hastily called press conference July 12. In the days prior, multiple media outlets reported that the two agencies had clashed over public guidance for contaminants found in well water near coal ash ponds.
Secretaries of the two agencies signed an expanded charter for the board two weeks after the announcement, giving the group the responsibility to study the effects of contaminants and advise the Environmental Management Commission on the "necessary level of control" to protect health and the environment. That specifically included hexavalent chromium, an element known to cause cancer found in several drinking water wells around coal ash pits, and GenX, an unregulated and largely unstudied compound found in the Cape Fear River.
DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said at the time that the panel would "provide the state with much-needed scientific expertise to confront these issues."
The panel's expertise, incidentally, would come from outside the influence of an executive branch that has in recent months clashed with lawmakers over accusations of slashed funding for state agencies and inadequate responses to emerging environmental problems.
Even before the new board was announced publicly, DEQ officials told Duke about their intention to form the group in mid-June.
Yet, neither agency has elaborated fully on why it's taken them four months to seat members of the Science Advisory Board. DHHS forward questions about the appointment process to Kritzer, who said staff at both departments have been "actively seeking qualified people to take on this important role," a process that has included extensive vetting.
"Anytime you have a panel that you're expanding like this one and you're looking for the very best, you want to get the very best," Kritzer said Wednesday.
But in the meantime, Jones said her clients have repeatedly asked for meetings with the environmental and health agencies to work toward a faster solution for permanent clean drinking water. While she thinks the advisory board's role in an important one, she said getting its recommendation on issues like hexavalent chromium may be overkill for homeowners who are pushing for access to public water supplies as soon as possible.
"If we wait for the dust to settle on this, Duke's not going to get what it needs, our clients aren't going to get what they need, and everything just stays in flux," Jones said. "I am frustrated beyond words that this is taking so long."
Board chair to lead first meeting in October
Bartram is a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill and the founder of the university's Water Institute. His initial task, according to a DEQ release Thursday afternoon, will be leading the group of experts in epidemiology, toxicology and other areas in a study of "emerging chemicals of concern," including GenX and hexavalent chromium.
"Environmental exposures are important and often overlooked causes of disease worldwide," Bartram said in a statement. "I am extremely pleased to see the leadership of North Carolina tackle emerging hazards. I look forward to seeing the board provide practical, workable support to Governor Cooper and DEQ so that we may effectively address the needs of the people of our state."
DEQ has not yet announced the location or agenda of the meeting, which will be open to the public. The panel will meet six times a year.
The panel's expanded presence is a positive development for the state, according to Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter. Even with the state's existing staff in areas of environmental regulation and public health, she said many of these issues are new and complex enough to warrant outside leadership scientific expertise.
"There's no state that has a great plan going forward to deal with emerging contaminants overall," Gavin said. "If North Carolina wants to lead on that, we're going to need advice from experts."