The widening scandal about coal ash and drinking water

Chris Fitzsimon - Contributing Columnist

The headlines in Raleigh these days have been dominated by the landmark ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturning much of the North Carolina’s massive voter suppression law with the court citing stunning evidence that state lawmakers asked for data about African-American voting habits and then changed the law to make it harder for African-Americans to vote.

Also in the news have been the constantly changing explanations of Gov. Pat McCrory about HB2, the sweeping anti-LGBT law McCrory signed that continues to damage North Carolina’s reputation around the world and cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue. The NBA’s recent decision to move the 2017 all-star game and its $100 million economic impact out of Charlotte because of the law is the latest blow.

But now another blockbuster story that has been in the background has exploded, the rapidly widening scandal starting with sworn testimony from the state toxicologist that key officials in the McCrory Administration rejected his analysis and told people living near leaking Duke Energy coal ash ponds that their drinking water was safe when there was scientific evidence that it was not.

The testimony came in a deposition by toxicologist Ken Rudo in a lawsuit against Duke Energy by environmental groups. Duke tried hard to keep the deposition private, but the Associated Press obtained a copy and its allegations are stunning.

AP reported that Rudo said that McCrory’s State Health Director Randall Williams acted unethically and maybe illegally by assuring residents that their well water was safe even though it contained a chemical known to cause cancer.

The AP story quotes Rudo saying in his testimony that Williams “knowingly told people that their water was safe when we knew it wasn’t.”

The Winston-Salem Journal reported that emails obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services included a telling one from Rudo after HHS officials decided over his objections to support Duke Energy’s claim that the water was generally safe to drink.

Rudo wrote that “I cannot from an ethical and moral standpoint put my name on a form with this absolutely untrue human health statement…”

And it’s not just the health director who was involved. The Journal reports that testimony in the court case from Megan Davies, the state epidemiologist, includes details of a meeting about the safety of the drinking water between Duke Energy executives and top McCrory Administration officials including Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart.

And it goes higher than that.

The AP story about Rudo’s deposition includes his statement that he was called to a meeting in the governor’s office where Communications Director Josh Ellis asked him why it was necessary to warn the residents about the drinking water.

Rudo said McCrory was not in the office for the meeting but was listening on the phone. The news of the meeting sent the McCrory Administration spin machine into overdrive with statements issued and Chief of Staff Thomas Stith holding a hastily called and extremely unusual 9:00 pm news conference Tuesday night in the State Capitol.

Stith said that McCrory didn’t call the meeting with Rudo or take part in it and didn’t know why Rudo “lied under oath,” though Stith acknowledged that he himself wasn’t at the meeting in question.

The Associated Press quotes HHS communications director Kendra Gerlach, who was at the meeting, saying that McCrory did not participate, but she declined to say that she was accusing Rudo of lying under oath about McCrory being on the phone.

Rudo told AP that he stands by his testimony about the drinking water and the meeting in McCrory’s office and it’s hard to imagine that he is not telling the truth. He’s a well-respected scientist, not a politician.

At the very least, the whole episode raises more questions about the relationship between the McCrory Administration and Duke Energy where McCrory worked for 28 years and how that relationship influences important decisions about environmental policy and the safety of drinking water.

Why was Communications Director Josh Ellis questioning the state toxicologist about why he wanted to warn people about the dangers in their water? That is the toxicologist’s job. It’s supposed to be anyway.

And who was at the meeting at the governor’s office and who was on the phone and why was the meeting called in the first place? And most importantly why did the McCrory Administration side with Duke Energy and overrule its own scientist about the safety of the drinking water near the company’s leaking coal ash ponds?

And as for the conflicting accounts of the meeting, Rudo raises an interesting point about his testimony.

He was under oath and the McCrory Administration officials disputing his account were not.

Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

Chris Fitzsimon

Contributing Columnist

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