Hey Gov. McCrory: Stop meddling with scientists’ coal ash warnings

The Observer editorial board

Gov. Pat McCrory is facing questions about whether his administration is interfering with scientists who are trying to protect the public from potential coal ash contamination.
Gov. Pat McCrory is facing questions about whether his administration is interfering with scientists who are trying to protect the public from potential coal ash contamination. Observer file photo

The fact that the state’s epidemiologist has resigned in protest amidst a conflict over water-safety warnings is no big deal in Gov. Pat McCrory’s eyes.

“We basically have a disagreement among scientists,” he told reporters Thursday.

That’s not what we’re seeing, governor. Not by a long shot. Looks more like an ugly tug-of-war between scientists trying to protect the public and an administration trying to keep negative environmental headlines at bay in an election year.

The resignation of state epidemiologist Megan Davies on Wednesday ratcheted up the stakes in that battle. She stepped down in objection to what she called the administration’s “false narrative” about her former subordinate, toxicologist Ken Rudo.

The administration portrayed him as a rogue scientist after environmental groups fighting the state over coal ash cleanup filed in court – and on the public record – damning excerpts from his deposition testimony.

In it, Rudo painted a picture of an administration that wanted to soften the language in do-not-drink notices to play down scientific concerns about the risk of hexavalent chromium, a possible carcinogen, in drinking-water wells near Duke Energy’s coal ash pits.

Rudo lied under oath, the governor’s aides said, and created a new stricter standard for well water near the ash pits – one 1,400 times stricter than federal drinking water standards.

State health director Randall Williams and Tom Reeder, an assistant secretary in the Department of Environmental Quality, fired off a public statement that said “Rudo’s unprofessional approach to this important matter does a disservice to public health and environmental protection in North Carolina.”

And that triggered Davies’ resignation. She said that, far from acting alone, Rudo worked with other state scientists in reaching his water-safety conclusions.

Upon reading Williams’ and Reeder’s statement, “I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “I cannot work for a department and an administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

And with that, she resigned her $188,000-a-year post, effective immediately.

That’s not a move you make on a whim. Clearly, something is wrong with the relationship between this administration and its public health scientists.

Rudo’s deposition and Davies’ resignation raise serious questions about what happens inside the McCrory administration when scientific facts and political considerations clash. It will surely bolster long-simmering suspicions that McCrory’s 28-year career as a Duke employee makes him an untrustworthy steward of the state’s delicate relationship with its largest power utility.

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s campaign is calling on McCrory to fire staffers if they pressured state scientists to rescind “do-not-drink” orders.

Seeing a chance to score points in the gubernatorial race, he even suggests McCrory himself should resign if he was involved.

We say put the politics on hold. We’ve already seen how messy it gets when you start mixing public health science and political science. We’re talking about people’s lives and safety.

The residents near those ash pits need answers. Answers they can trust.

And a good place to start is by letting scientists do their jobs without fear of meddling from poll-watching politicians and their politically sensitive aides.