Among Governor Cooper’s Science Advisory Board’s (SAB) primary objectives is to “act as consultants on DEQ’s determinations to regulate releases of contaminants,” i.e. provide a recommendation on a health goal that is enforceable by law. They have held four meetings since October, 2017 and based on the most recent meeting’s discussion this past Monday, they are nowhere near ready to consult DEQ on regulating these contaminants.
The directors from the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Divisions of Wastewater Management, Air Quality, and Water Resources, along with staff from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), spent four hours providing updates and answering questions about studies and projects both completed and ongoing. They also provided a couple of presentations on the differences between standards set by the EPA for drinking water, groundwater and surface waters.
DHHS was tasked by the SAB at an earlier meeting with looking into benchmark dose modeling, which, according to the EPA definition, would allow the agencies – in the absence of hard data on these emerging contaminants — to estimate the dose or exposure of a chemical or compound associated with a given response level (existing data) in order to facilitate hazardous pollutant risk assessments. The SAB even helped provide training to DHHS staff to conduct their study. This is promising. But, after DHHS’s Mina Shehee, Ph.D., presented the results, she was met with a request for further study. Her response, “I just want to be clear, this is going to take some time.”
Moreover, SAB Chairman Jamie Bartram, Ph.D. requested that DEQ, DHHS, and the Dept. of Agriculture formulate a “more comprehensive plan of ‘food stuff’ study, to include water, air, soil, food [to include home gardens as well as larger farms], and inhalation exposure” – and to account for regional differences in the plan.
When asked if the SAB planned to await results of all this before consulting the DEQ/DHHS on a regulatory standard for drinking water, Bartram effectively said, yes, they require all of this data before they will move forward with a recommendation.
It is, of course, vital that the science is strong before the SAB can accurately advise the DHHS and DEQ on what would be the regulatory standard for drinking water. It is however, unfortunate, that they don’t seem to be meeting outside of these public settings to help the state move forward as quickly as possible. “It may not be obvious to those who are listening to these sometimes rather academic and arcane conversations, but everything that has been going on in this room [emphasis added] is about the ability to actually point to a number.”
It seems that some on the board may not have the same understanding of that mission: one member asked DEQ if they even have the authority to set a regulatory standard – in absence of an EPA standard (due to a state law that may be interpreted to inhibit this authority). DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman has stated publicly, numerous times, that the lawyers at DEQ have determined they do have this authority; she stated it again at the meeting.
The SAB is made up of extremely qualified individuals that are all likely tremendously busy with their day-jobs – and, they are graciously volunteering their time and their expertise to support this time-sensitive effort. This is highly commendable.
But, at this point, it seems credible that the EPA may in fact set a federal standard before our state – as it was announced that they expect to have something to us within five months. With the current EPA’s penchant for weakening environmental protections, this may leave us with a standard that is minimally protective of human health and the environment.
One can only hope that the comments from SAB Board member David Dorman, Ph.D. are heeded. “Risk managers need to ask how data will influence decision-making at state level,” he said. “The board can give a shopping list of things to do that are not cost-effective or effective to public – my concern is we will collect a lot of data that may not be useful; we may get paralyzed by analysis.”