Environmental group wants to force governor’s chief of staff to talk about coal ash

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By Josh Bergeron


SALISBURY — After he previously wouldn’t answer questions under oath, an environmental group is asking a judge to force Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff to testify about coal ash issues.

The request, from the Southern Environmental Law Center, comes during heated court battles among state government, Duke Energy, the Yadkin Riverkeeper and other environmental groups.

Thomas Stith, the chief of staff, was deposed on Sept. 1. The SELC released his deposition on Tuesday. Among other things, Stith revealed that he hadn’t read relevant court documents before accusing a state tocixologist of lying under oath.

However, Stith also refused to answer questions about coal ash pollution, the interaction of Duke Energy with state government about the matter and enforcement of the law against Duke, according to court documents filed Tuesday.

“Mr. Stith is likely to have information about Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution, given his position at the point where information is exchanged within the state government concerning this important topic,” the Southern Environmental Law Center’s request states. “Indeed, Mr. Stith considered himself so well informed that he publicly accused a senior, long-serving state official of lying under oath in this proceeding.”

Specific questions that Stith didn’t answer include: whether Gov. Pat McCrory took part in or requested a meeting with a toxicologist to discuss well water safety, who requested the meeting, whether Stith was involved in sending well owners information about the safety of their water, whether he had ever met with Duke Energy and several other items.

Repeatedly, lawyers representing Stith instructed him not to answer the questions. Stith’s deposition shows SELC attorney Frank Holleman repeatedly asking biting questions. Stith’s attorneys continually fired back “object and instruct him not to answer.”

At one point, Stith was specifically asked whether the toxicologist in question — Dr. Ken Rudo — committed perjury when deposed in the same case. He didn’t answer. Previously, Stith hadn’t hesitated to give a statement that may have answered the SELC’s question.

In a prior deposition — released in August — state toxicologist Ken Rudo testified that actions of state government in the midst of various coal ash controversies were “highly unethical and possibly illegal.” Rudo said he was called to a meeting with McCrory about the safety of well water near coal ash ponds.

Stith, the governor’s chief of staff, would call a late-night press conference following the release of Rudo’s deposition to say Rudo “lied under oath.”

Court documents released Tuesday, however, reveal that Stith never read Rudo’s full deposition.

Tuesday’s court filing is part of a lawsuit over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, but the case has become part of a much larger controversy over coal ash in North Carolina. In Rowan County, dozens of families refuse to drink their water despite the fact that state government considers well water safe to drink.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing groups in federal and state lawsuits that include government agencies and Duke Energy. If Stith is forced to answer all questions raised by the SELC, his testimony could be used in federal and state court.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.