Did Pat McCrory water down coal ash warnings?

The Observer editorial board


Was Gov. Pat McCrory part of a meeting that eventually led to misleading health advisories being sent to owners of wells that contained contaminated water?

State toxicologist Ken Rudo says yes.

In a sworn deposition made public Tuesday, Rudo said he was summoned in April 2015 to the governor’s office, where he met with McCrory aide Josh Ellis. The governor called a few minutes into the meeting and spoke briefly with Ellis, Rudo recalled. After that, Ellis talked about changing an advisory Rudo had helped craft that warned well owners near Duke Energy coal ash pits not to drink their water.

McCrory administration officials say no.

In a news conference Tuesday, McCrory chief of staff Thomas Stith said Rudo is wrong. The governor did not participate in the meeting, said Stith, who added: “We don’t know why Ken Rudo lied under oath.”

Those are strong words, and here’s why: Not long after the meeting, a new advisory was crafted that told well owners their water met federal standards. Rudo and other scientists believed that new advisory was misleading because those federal standards didn’t measure hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen found in some of the well water.

It was, Rudo testified, “amazingly dishonest and misleading language.” If his recollection is correct, that’s a direct link between the governor and the changing of advisories that may have jeopardized the health of hundreds of North Carolinians.

There’s probably no way to be certain who’s right about the 2015 meeting, although the governor could help matters by releasing his schedule and phone records for that day.

It should be noted that Rudo, a Republican who says he voted for McCrory, offered his side at a deposition, not a press conference designed to embarrass the governor. In that testimony, Rudo didn’t even make much of McCrory’s phone call to Ellis, so it doesn’t seem he was intent on damaging the governor. He merely thought it was wrong to mislead the well owners.

We agree, and we also believe the question about the governor calling in to the 2015 meeting is largely irrelevant. What matters is that the meeting happened. It was held at the governor’s office. It included one of the governor’s key aides, and it led to advisories that scientists questioned. Given the political sensitivity surrounding coal ash, the change to the advisory was surely made with the governor’s blessing.

Rudo is also not the first to say that McCrory’s office took the side of Duke Energy, which challenged the initial do-not-drink letters. In a May deposition, state epidemiologist Megan Davies also said the governor’s office intervened to change the advisories.

It’s important to note that N.C. lawmakers have since passed –and McCrory has signed – a bill requiring Duke Energy to provide permanent water infrastructure or a filtration system by 2018 to well owners within a half-mile of coal ash pits. Their water, finally, will be safe.

That doesn’t change a troubling and perhaps unprecedented intervention by the governor’s office. “That has just never happened before because we are the scientists,” Rudo testified. “We are the ones that have the knowledge and the information.”

They also have a responsibility. “We are trying to protect people,” he said. “We are trying to help people. We are trying to help people protect their water.”

The real question: Why wasn’t the governor’s office making sure to do the same?