TAR HEEL VIEW: Water safety is no place for politics

A goal for any top manager in a solid organization is to put good people in key positions and allow them to do their jobs. In other words, get out of the way and give experts room to operate.

This is why politics and good management practices seldom collide in the same sentence.

That seems to be at least part of what’s turning into a very ugly imbroglio involving Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration over its handling of pollution in private wells around some of Duke Energy’s coal-ash storage basins. The controversy erupted with the release of a legal deposition by state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, who said he’d been summoned to the governor’s offices over his recommendation for a do-not-drink order for residents whose wells were found to contain hexavalent chromium, a likely carcinogen. The governor, Rudo said, participated in the meeting by phone. McCrory and other top officials deny that. They have portrayed Rudo as a rogue scientist.

Rudo, historically a respected scientist in his field, has not backed away from his position on the wells. On Tuesday, state health director Dr. Randall Williams and Tom Reeder, an assistant secretary in the Department of Environmental Quality, issued a jointly written statement blasting Rudo, saying he had acted on his own and created “unnecessary fear and confusion” for the well owners.

Then it got interesting.

State epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned from her position after reading the charges by Williams and Reeder. She had served for eight years at the $188,000-a-year job and was Rudo’s immediate supervisor. Like Rudo, she has strong credentials, a former medical epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was direct in her statement.

“I cannot work for a department and administration that deliberately misleads the public,” she said, explaining that Rudo’s recommendations were the result of considerable scientific collaboration within the department, and an attempt to meet standards in the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act.

That’s not a move someone makes on a whim. Something seems amiss with the relationship between the administration and its public health scientists.

For his part, McCrory insists the dustup is no big deal, saying in several published reports, “We basically have a disagreement among scientists.”

It seems a bit more complicated than that. Events of last week, especially the resignation by Davies raise serious questions about what happens inside the McCrory administration when scientific facts and political considerations clash.

We believe that this is no time for politics. When it comes to public health concerns we always say err on the side of caution. Keep people as safe as possible and shift any politics hundreds, even thousands of miles way. Lives and public safety should be the primary concerns. The residents near those ash pits need answers. Answers they can trust from experts not tainted by political gain or spin.

We would be the first to admit that science isn’t our strength. But we do recognize a time when leaders are required to be good managers rather than political operators. Let scientists do their jobs and protect the public.

Burlington Times-News

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