Top health official resigns; Rudo fights back criticism over coal ash decisions

Published 12:10 am Thursday, August 11, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — As North Carolina’s coal ash controversy shifts from a scientific debate to a war of political rhetoric, the state’s top epidemiologist has resigned and another scientist is fighting public criticism from high-ranking state employees.

First on Wednesday, state toxicologist Ken Rudo rebutted a widely distributed op-ed from leaders in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. The letter accused Rudo of reaching “questionable and inconsistent scientific conclusions” about whether well water near coal ash ponds is safe to drink.

Hours later, State Epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned from her job because of the “false narrative” being spread in the op-ed.

“I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” Davies writes in her letter. “I cannot work for a department and an administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

For his part, Rudo said in a statement provided to the Associated Press that he was simply following procedures required by state law when calculating the cancer-risk standards for well water near coal ash ponds.

The most recent flare-up in the ongoing discussions surrounding coal ash started last week, after attorneys released a partial transcript of Rudo’s deposition in a Yadkin Riverkeeper lawsuit. The transcript shows that Rudo said state government officials acted unethically and potentially illegally when deciding to rescind “do not drink” orders for water wells near coal ash ponds.

Currently, most residents of the Dukeville community refuse to drink their water, using bottled water provided by Duke Energy instead. The state sent residents letters saying their well water was safe to drink, but originally the state said the water was unsafe.

Despite claims otherwise by Public Health Director Randall Williams and DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder in the op-ed, Davies said employees from different state agencies worked together to decide whether water was safe to drink.

“The editorial signed by Randall Williams and Tom Reeder presents a false narrative of a lone scientist in NC DHHS acting independently to set health screening levels and make water use recommendations to well owners,” Davies wrote in resignation letter to DHHS secretary Richard Brajer.

She has served as the state’s epidemiology section chief since 2008, according to her online resumé. Epidemiology is the study of causes and effects of health and disease in certain populations.

For a period of several months in 2015, Davies also served as the acting state health director. When Williams began working at Health and Human Services in 2015, Davies said she briefed him on the process that state employees followed to decide what would make water unsafe to drink. In some cases, the state used already published health standards. When no health standard existed, Davies said Health and Human Services calculated a screening level in accordance with state administrative code.

The specific elements in question are hexavalent chromium and vanadium. Both are metals. Hexavalent chromium can cause cancer. Vanadium can be found in foods; its exact effect on the human body is unclear. However, high levels of the metal are thought to be bad for human health.

Davies spoke to the Salisbury Post in a phone interview shortly after releasing her letter. While the department used science to determine what levels of metals were acceptable in well water, Davies said “the scientific decision-making process was abandoned with the change in DHHS administration.” When asked, Davies confirmed that she was talking about Williams becoming the state’s public health director.

She declined to comment specifically about the way Rudo has been treated following the partial release of his deposition. Instead, Davies said she could talk about how the criticism he has faced affects public health professionals.

“I think it makes experts less willing or less confident in making a recommendation,” she said.

Rudo’s attorney: Specific instructions followed

Rudo’s job is to perform human health risk assessments related to chemicals in water, soil and air. He still reports for work as the state’s toxicologist.

When deciding whether water was safe to drink, the Department of Health and Human Services, where Rudo has worked for nearly 30 years, initially applied a far looser standard — a level for public water supplies set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s and required by a 2008 state law. But state law dictated a one-in-a-million cancer risk, so that’s what health and environmental agencies calculated and eventually agreed upon, Rudo said. State agencies were required to follow the law, Rudo said, and he checked the calculations setting the stricter standard with federal health authorities based on the latest studies of cancer risk.

“This consensus, regarding what health protective values to use to protect the well water of the N.C. residents adjacent to the coal ash ponds, and how to communicate these to folks, was what Dr. Rudo followed based on specific instructions from his superiors at DHHS,” a statement provided to the Associated Press by Rudo’s attorney said.

Davies said government has a responsibility to keeps its citizens safe. She questioned whether members of the public still trust North Carolina to make recommendations about the quality of drinking water. However, she recommended that Dukeville residents stick with the state’s original recommendation — that well water near coal ash ponds is unsafe to drink.

Attorneys for Duke Energy have sought to block the full release of Rudo’s deposition in the Yadkin Riverkeeper lawsuit. Environmentalists such as Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott have asked, “What does Duke Energy have to hide?”

As the statewide political battles rage on surrounding coal ash, residents of Rowan County’s Dukeville community are left waiting for water. Unwilling to drink their well water and unable to sell their houses and move out of the community, they’re left waiting for municipal water lines to be extended from Salisbury.

“I feel for them,” Davies said. “They haven’t been able to move on. They’re still in this kind of suspended state.”

Rowan County commissioners have drafted plans to extend water lines to the Dukeville community, but construction is estimated to be more than a year away.

This article contains content from the Associated Press.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246