Governor denies talking with state toxicologist about well water advisories

Neighbors with tainted wells in Belmont stack bottled water.
Neighbors with tainted wells in Belmont stack bottled water. File

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office denies a state toxicologist’s testimony that the governor discussed with him state health warnings about well water contamination near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, in excerpts of a lawsuit deposition made public Tuesday, called the health advisories “scientifically untrue” because they told well owners their water met federal standards when health experts believed it was unsafe.

Rudo’s statements, filed as part of the Yadkin Riverkeeper’s lawuit against Duke over coal ash pollution, most forcefully criticized the Department of Environmental Quality for adding “amazingly misleading and dishonest language” language to the advisories. He refused to add his name to them.

DEQ said it stands by its actions. But McCrory’s office, and the Department of Health and Human Services that employs Rudo, forcefully denied his account of being summoned to the governor’s office to discuss the advisories before they were issued.

Rudo said he talked briefly by telephone with the governor, who is a former Duke employee, and at greater length with McCrory aide Josh Ellis, who “had a concern about what we were telling these folks on the forms.”

McCrory’s staff denied Rudo spoke with the governor, who is running for a second term in what is expected to be a close race with Attorney General Roy Cooper.

"We don't know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting as he suggests,” chief of staff Thomas Stith said in a statement. Stith credited the administration for recent legislation that will supply well owners near Duke’s power plants with alternative water sources.

DHHS communications director Kendra Gerlach also said the governor did not participate in the meeting. “I was the one calling our public health officials, including Rudo. During my call with Rudo, he volunteered to come by and I said yes. He then joined Josh Ellis and me in person to answer some of the questions being discussed.”

Rudo, a registered Republican who voted for McCrory in 2012, defended his account Wednesday. Rudo said he was called as he left for vacation by Dr. Megan Davies, DHHS’ epidemiology chief, to go to the governor’s office. “It wasn’t voluntary,” he said.

Rudo said he spoke with McCrory by telephone for three or four minutes about how risk warnings would be communicated to well owners and continued the discussion with Ellis.

Advocates claim Duke has gotten soft treatment under McCrory’s administration, highlighted by a 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River. The administration responds that it has taken a tough line on ash, filing lawsuits against Duke before the spill.

Rudo’s testimony is consistent with previously released depositions in which health officials described a struggle with Department of Environmental Quality over the risks posed by contaminants found in private wells. The debate focused on hexavalent chromium, which may cause cancer in people who drink contaminated water.

State officials issued don’t-drink advisories in the spring of 2015 to hundreds of well owners who live near Duke’s power plants and their millions of tons of coal ash. Ash contains metals that have contaminated water under the plants. Duke says its ash hasn’t tainted private wells.

DHHS has said it issued don’t-drink advisories for hexavalent chromium based on a one-in-a-million lifetime risk that it will cause cancer.

Rudo said DEQ officials wanted to soften the advisory by adding that the water still met federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards. That’s true, Rudo said, only because there is no federal standard for hexavalent chromium.

“They wanted language put on there that stated, in essence, we were overreacting in telling people not to drink their water. (Deputy DEQ secretary Tom Reeder) wanted us to say on the forms, ‘Well, there is risk. You shouldn't drink the water, but it is not exceeding any public water standards or any (federal) standards,’ ” Rudo testified.

DEQ defended the advisory language.

“The Safe Drinking Water Act is the only regulatory standard for drinking water in North Carolina,” spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco said. “The state environmental department had concerns about treating residents near coal ash ponds differently than the millions of North Carolinians who get their drinking water from municipal water supplies.”

Rudo also objected when Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, rescinded the advisories for hexavalent chromium earlier this year. “He knowingly told people that their water was safe when we knew it wasn't,” Rudo testified.

Williams said at the time that the state had been too cautious in issuing the notices. He said municipal systems showed similar levels of hexavalent chromium as the private wells, although advocates have challenged that assertion.

DHHS said Rudo’s testimony was inconsistent with the department’s position. The department called the deposition’s release “a politically motivated attempt to manipulate and mislead the public” by environmental advocates.

Last month Duke Energy asked the court to prevent the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents the Yadkin Riverkeeper and other advocates, from releasing transcripts of an unfinished deposition of Rudo. Duke argued that the state toxicologist’s testimony was “largely hearsay” and unlikely to be allowed at a trial.

“We have hours of questions about his actions, credibility and testimony in the first half of his deposition,” Duke’s Paige Sheehan said Tuesday.

The law center, however, filed some of Rudo’s deposition as part of its response to the Duke court filing.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender