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Top state officials undermined public health system, former epidemiologist says

A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River spill in February 2014.
A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River spill in February 2014. AP

North Carolina’s former state epidemiologist resigned this week after an editorial by top health and environment officials that she said undermined the work of public health professionals.

Dr. Megan Davies wrote in her resignation letter Wednesday that she wouldn’t work for a department and administration that “deliberately misleads the public.”

Her comments a day later were part of an escalating battle over tests of private wells near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

State Democrats called Thursday for an investigation of whether Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke employee, tampered with rules that were applied to tests that found hundreds of contaminated wells.

McCrory’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, blamed the governor’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, for ignoring coal ash problems over decades.

The editorial Davies referred to attacked state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, who worked for her and advised many well owners near Duke’s power plants not to drink their water.

Signed by assistant environment secretary Tom Reeder and state health director Randall Williams, it criticized Rudo’s “unprofessional approach,” the “inconsistencies in his scientific conclusions” and the “unnecessary fear and confusion” they said he encouraged.

“The overall picture it painted was that public health in North Carolina whether state or local is done arbitrarily and unprofessionally, and that completely undermines the public confidence in that system,” Davies said in an interview. “That editorial felt like an assault on the integrity of public health professionals in the state, and Dr. Rudo was the one that they mentioned.”

Last week McCrory’s office, in an unusual step, accused Rudo of lying under oath in a lawsuit deposition.

Rudo testified he was summoned to talk with the governor about how the contamination detected in the tests was communicated to well owners. McCrory’s office said the governor took no part in the meeting. Rudo stands by his account.

Davies said top health and environmental officials were briefed in detail about the process followed in assessing what contaminant levels were potentially unsafe.

Nearly 400 well owners were advised last year not to drink their water, mostly because of the contaminants vanadium and hexavalent chromium, which causes cancer. Williams, the state health director, rescinded the advisories in March, saying the standards applied to them were too stringent and that similar contaminant levels were found in municipal water supplies.

“In the work we did preparing for the enactment of the Coal Ash Management Act or in the work we did in reviewing the well results and sending out the (don’t-drink advisories) and having our toxicologists talk to people, I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Davies said. “It was all done in the right way. It was when a sudden reversal came that I wish I could have communicated better about what our work was about.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, responding Wednesday night to Davies’ resignation, said 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.”

Democrats call for probe

North Carolina’s Democratic Party said Davies’ resignation raises questions about whether McCrory’s administration influenced the well tests to benefit Duke, which says its coal ash did not contaminate private wells. The party called for an independent investigation.

“There is at least an appearance of pay-to-play politics and, unlike other incidents of McCrory rewarding his friends and donors with political favors, this insider dealing puts lives at risk,” spokesman Dave Miranda told reporters in Charlotte.

McCrory’s staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The governor’s campaign, in turn, tied Rudo to Cooper, noting that both have used the same “politically connected” law firm.

Cooper “ignored the coal ash problem for decades and even fought cleanup efforts as attorney general,” McCrory’s office said in a six-page press release Thursday. “Like on so many other issues, if Roy Cooper did his job as attorney general for the past 16 years, the entire coal ash issue could have been avoided.”

Coal ash burst into the state’s consciousness in 2014, a year after McCrory took office, with Duke’s spill into the Dan River. Legislators later ordered Duke’s 32 ash ponds to be closed.

The McCrory campaign charges that Cooper and former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration agreed to legislation that exempted coal ash from tougher landfill rules and shielded Duke from fines for groundwater contamination and fought cleanup efforts. It says Cooper didn’t support coal ash regulation when he previously served as a state legislator.

“Once again, Gov. McCrory’s only response to scandal within his administration is to point fingers and howl ‘conspiracy,’ ” Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter responded. “The governor’s top water scientist has just resigned after accusing the McCrory administration of intentionally misleading people. This is a serious accusation, and families deserve both answers and an assurance that their drinking water is safe.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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