State epidemiologist quits, well-testing squabble between scientists, McCrory’s administration intensifies

A Belmont woman prepares soup with bottled water after contaminants were found in a community well in 2015.
A Belmont woman prepares soup with bottled water after contaminants were found in a community well in 2015. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist resigned Wednesday to protest her employer’s depiction that “deliberately misleads” how screening standards were created to test private wells near Duke Energy’s power plants.

Dr. Megan Davies’ immediate resignation after seven years on the job deepens a rift between Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and some of the state’s top public health scientists. McCrory is a former Duke employee who is running for a second term as governor.

The millions of tons of coal ash stored at Duke’s power plants has contaminated groundwater under them. State tests last year found that cancer-causing chemicals were present in hundreds of nearby private wells, although Duke denies coal ash is the source.

Davies and the state toxicologist, Kenneth Rudo, have testified in sworn depositions that state environmental officials pressured public health scientists to relax temporary limits created to test the private wells for two elements, vanadium and cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

McCrory’s office forcefully denied last week Rudo’s account that the governor personally talked with him about how well test results were communicated to their owners. Rudo stands by his testimony.

On Tuesday the departments of Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality released an editorial that criticized Rudo for temporary standards that it said were far more stringent than those used in other states.

“Rudo’s unprofessional approach to this important matter does a disservice to public health and environmental protection in North Carolina,” it read.

Davies, who is Rudo’s boss, struck back Wednesday with her resignation, saying department officials knew that Rudo was only one of several officials who reviewed the screening standards.

“I can only conclude that the department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” Davies wrote in her resignation letter. “I cannot work for a department and administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

Davies wrote that the temporary standards were actually developed by DEQ. Rudo, she said, was one of two DHHS toxicologists who reviewed and agreed with them. The process “followed a process that engaged the (Division of Public Health) and DHHS leadership in all decisions.”

DHHS, Davies’ former employer, said in a statement that “while there are differences of opinion, and we respect those differences, ensuring citizens’ safety and communicating are our top priorities.

“Throughout this process, we’ve provided full information to homeowners about the safety of their drinking water and have taken appropriate steps to reassure citizens who have been unduly alarmed. We remain committed to the health and safety of our citizens.”

In her earlier sworn deposition, Davies had testified that she was “conflicted” over letters this spring that rescinded don’t-drink advisories issued nearly a year earlier and based on private well test results.

McCrory’s office intervened, she testified, on the wording of warning letters sent to well owners in the spring of 2015. Duke, Davies said, later met twice last year with top state officials, including two department secretaries, to challenge the advisories.

Rudo testified in his deposition that DEQ officials wanted to soften the advisories 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, which is considered the more dangerous of the contaminants found in the wells.

“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 has defended the advisory language, and Health and Human Services said it stood by the decision to rescind the don’t-drink advisories, saying they were too cautious and out of step with regulations in other states.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender