Politics & Government

State scientist rebuts McCrory administration’s criticism on coal ash testimony

State toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo, pictured here at a public meeting in Cashiers in 2014, says he felt pressured to weaken do-not-drink warnings about well water near Duke Energy’s coal ash storage sites.
State toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo, pictured here at a public meeting in Cashiers in 2014, says he felt pressured to weaken do-not-drink warnings about well water near Duke Energy’s coal ash storage sites. The Canary Coalition

A state scientist resigned in protest Wednesday after the McCrory administration publicly accused a member of her staff of lying and unprofessional conduct.

The staffer, toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, had testified that the administration sought to downplay the health risks to well owners who live near coal ash storage ponds.

Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health, submitted a scathing letter of resignation in response to an open letter distributed to the news media on Tuesday by her boss, state health director Dr. Randall Williams, and Tom Reeder, an assistant secretary in the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” Davies wrote. “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

Davies, 53, walks away from a nearly $188,000-a-year position, which she has held for seven years. She, her subordinate Rudo, 60, and another colleague testified under oath that they had concerns about the state’s decision earlier this year to rescind do-not-drink notices to well owners.

It was Rudo’s testimony, which surfaced last week in excerpts from a deposition in a lawsuit, that triggered the clash between the public health staff and the administration, all the way to Gov. Pat McCrory. Rudo testified that he was summoned to the governor’s office to discuss concerns McCrory had over the wording of the pending do-not-drink notices. McCrory’s chief of staff told reporters Rudo lied under oath.

Rudo defended himself in public on Wednesday for the first time.

Rudo, a 27-year state employee, hired an attorney to issue a written rebuttal to health and environment agency officials, who along with McCrory stepped up their criticism of Rudo this week for “questionable and inconsistent scientific conclusions.”

“Rudo’s unprofessional approach to this important matter does a disservice to public health and environmental protection in North Carolina,” Reeder and Williams wrote. “It doesn’t help that political special interest groups perpetuate his exaggerations and fuel alarm among citizens for their own purposes.”

Rudo’s attorney, J. Heydt Philbeck, released a four-page response, saying the administration has distorted the issue.

“Dr. Rudo believes that he has been personally and wrongfully impugned by state officials for the past week for his having the temerity to merely speak the truth,” the attorney said. “Being attacked by powerful state officials is unnerving enough; but it is particularly distressing when these personal attacks go to the heart of Dr. Rudo’s most prized earthly possession: his integrity and are utterly false. Dr. Rudo has been truthful at all times.”

Rudo: Didn’t act alone

Philbeck said it wasn’t just Rudo but regulators with the state Department of Health and Human Services, where Rudo works, and DEQ that agreed on a new, far more stringent threshold for the presence of the substance hexavalent chromium in drinking water in private wells near coal ash storage last year. Duke Energy has been providing bottled water to about 400 homes for more than a year, although there has not been a proven link between leaking coal ash basins and contaminated wells.

Earlier this year, state regulators rescinded do-not-drink notices, saying research had convinced them the water was safe to drink. They now portray Rudo as a renegade scientist who has stirred up unwarranted fears of cancer tied to drinking water. Rudo counters that he didn’t act alone, and the calculations that were used to determine safe levels have been scientifically vetted.

Davies, in her resignation letter, said Reeder’s and Williams’ statement “presents a false narrative of a lone scientist” acting independently.

Science behind politics

At the heart of the dispute is the science.

Reeder, the environmental agency official, said in an interview Wednesday that there was a simple disagreement with the state health agency over how best to notify the public about risks in their drinking water. Rudo’s deposition testimony impugned the agencies’ staffs, he said.

“We think there’s been some mischaracterization about what the staff did at DEQ,” Reeder said. “I take umbrage at that. We worked hard on this to protect health from day one.”

Here are the key points of disagreement between Rudo and the heads of the state’s health and environment agencies.

How much hexavalent chromium is safe?

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act sets the maximum contaminant level at 100 parts per billion. That amount is equivalent to 100 drops of liquid in a railroad tanker car. That level assumes the amount measured is entirely chromium 6, which is the most toxic form of the compound. That federal standard is currently under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some expect it to be revised.

The City of Raleigh also has a maximum chromium 6 level of 100 parts per billion allowed in its drinking water.

The state in 2015 set a health-screening level of 0.07 parts per billion, or 1,400 times more restrictive than the federal level, to meet a requirement from the 2014 state coal ash management law requiring that do-not-drink notices go out when there is a risk of one in 1 million people contracting cancer in drinking water. Rudo and Davies say that calculation also took into consideration state groundwater standards and California’s 10 ppb level.

Reeder and Williams contend Rudo came up with the state level on his own and that it shouldn’t be considered a formal standard for the safety of drinking water, unlike the federal standard that was subject to hearings and reviews.

Davies defended how the health-screening level was calculated, saying it was done by two DEQ toxicologists and reviewed by Rudo and another public health scientist.

Did Rudo reverse course on his own?

State records The News & Observer obtained show Rudo signed off on some wells in 2014 but then issued do-not-drink notices for those same wells the next year. Reeder and Williams called those actions inconsistent for someone who wanted his name taken off the warning notices because he thought they were so misleading.

Rudo notes there was no state threshold in place for hexavalent chromium in 2014 and says when DHHS tried to confer with DEQ that year to come up with such a level, it was rebuffed. As a result, Rudo says, he had no choice but to evaluate risks based on the federal standard for public water supplies, as required by state law. A level was eventually set after representatives from both agencies reached consensus following months of discussion.

Is the chromium 6 level out of step with the rest of the country?

Reeder and Williams say using the state health-screening level would logically require every state to issue do-not-drink notices to tens of millions of people. Staff at DEQ found it “untenable” that Rudo applied the state level to wells near coal ash ponds but not to the other 900,000 private wells in the state that would exceed that threshold.

Rudo says he wanted to apply the more stringent level statewide but was told to only consider wells neighboring coal ash basins in order to satisfy the new coal ash law.

A second substance, vanadium, has been found in some of the wells. Like chromium, vanadium is an element that is found in coal ash and is naturally occurring.

Coal ash — the residue of coal combustion at power plants — is stored in 32 basins around North Carolina. Duke Energy and state regulators are in the process of determining how many of the basins should be excavated and moved to lined landfills or covered and left where they are. All of the basins have been found to leak, but it isn’t known whether the leaks are responsible for the elevated levels of chromium and vanadium in wells.

Legislation enacted this year will speed up the process of connecting well owners to municipal water supplies.

House Democratic leader Larry Hall calls for SBI probe of decision to rescind do-not-drink notices for well owners near coal ash ponds.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

What is hexavalent chromium?

It’s a compound that is found in rocks, plants, soil and water. It has been increasingly detected thanks to improved technology. One kind of chromium, chromium 6, is a known carcinogen.

It is used to make chrome plates, dyes, pigments and in leather tanning. It can pollute the ground and water if disposed of improperly. Exposure can be through breathing, eating or drinking well water with the compound in it.

Source: N.C. Division of Public Health