Emails obtained through public-records requests by a conservation group show that State Toxicologist Ken Rudo forcefully resisted the McCrory administration last year as it moved to alter the do-not-drink letters sent to hundreds of well owners near coal-ash pits owned by Duke Energy.
In March 2015, after Rudo had drafted the letters advising well owners — many of whom had elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium — against using their water for drinking or cooking, department administrators pushed Duke Energy’s position that the water would generally be considered safe to drink under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
According to Rudo, one of the most experienced health experts in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, that claim is just not true.
“Since we now have an absolutely scientifically untrue human health statement insofar as it pertains to chromium … I am removing my name from the HRE form (do-not-drink letter),” Rudo said in an email to co-workers on March 15, 2015.
“I cannot from an ethical and moral standpoint put my name on a form with this absolutely untrue human health statement, insofar as it pertains to chromium,” he said.
The email comments come to light as Duke Energy moves to prevent testimony that Rudo provided earlier this month in a deposition related to coal-ash litigation from being publicly released. Saying that the deposition is not finished and that some of the testimony is based on hearsay, Duke Energy has requested that a judge issue a protective order sealing the testimony.
“That type of third-person, ‘water cooler’ discussion is not allowed in court and the rules say it should not be in the court of public opinion, either,” said Paige Sheehan, a Duke Energy spokeswoman.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing clean-water watchdog organizations in several coal-ash lawsuits, is allowed to contest the request. Last week, the organization declined to discuss the case.
Testimony provided in May by another health official, Megan Davies, the state epidemiologist, shed light on the close ties between the McCrory administration and Duke Energy.
At Duke Energy’s request, company officials met with members of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in June 2015, the same month of the much-reported meeting at the executive mansion between Gov. Pat McCrory and Duke Energy’s chief executive, Lynn Good, as well as other state and company officials.
Present at the meeting were several Duke Energy lawyers as well as Harry Sideris, the senior vice president of environmental, health and safety at Duke Energy, and Mark McIntire, the director of environmental policy and affairs at Duke Energy, according to Davies.
Among those representing DEQ were Secretary Donald van der Vaart, who was appointed by McCrory in January 2015, and Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary for the environment.
“Why are we (state health experts) looking at hexavalent chromium … when public water is not held to that standard?” McIntire asked, according to Davies.
Ignoring the experts
The Rudo emails, which were obtained by Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and provided to the Winston-Salem Journal, speak volumes, particularly at a time when the public cannot gain access to Rudo’s deposition, she said.
“What else are they ignoring their experts on?” asked Vick.
Rudo was not the only state health expert who opposed attempts to convey a message that the water was safe enough under the federal standard.
The federal standard is “unacceptable,” according to an email written in 2015 by Sandy Mort, who handles health assessments at the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch, or OEEB, at DHHS’ Division of Public Health.
“I do not believe that it provides the well-user with the most appropriate information as it pertains to their potential exposure and health. I do not want to have my name included on the form as a reviewer or contact resource since this would imply I agreed with, or was comfortable with, the statement,” Mort said.
In the end, the warning letters were issued without Rudo’s name. They said that the water was not safe enough to drink, but they also said what Rudo and Mort had opposed — that it would be considered safe under the federal standard. A year later, in March, a letter signed by agency administrators Tom Reeder and Randall Williams of the DEQ and DHHS, tells the well owners that their water is fine to drink although the pollutants remained.
The main reason: Hexavalent chromium levels would not exceed the health-safety threshold set by the federal standard.
The federal standard, set at 100 parts per billion, would allow a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 700, according to calculations made by state health experts.
Rudo’s threshold, set at 0.07 parts per billion, would allow for a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1 million — the standard that is required by state groundwater rules.
The issue of whether well water is safe enough to drink has been somewhat displaced recently by actions taken by the General Assembly. State legislators passed a bill this summer requiring Duke Energy to provide either permanent water supplies or a filtration system to eligible well owners within a half-mile of coal ash pits by October 2018.
Plans must be submitted by Dec. 15, according to the bill.
“This is the right thing to do for these residents,” Sheehan said.
For well owners such as Amy Brown of Belmont, who lives near Duke Energy’s Allen power plant, the contents of the email are still important, even if the legislature has put pressure on Duke Energy to provide her with permanent water.
“He treated us like human beings and not a number. Not a pest. We meant something to him,” Brown said, referring to Rudo.
“This is the man who took time to call hundreds of families across North Carolina to make sure they knew how to read the letters. We find ourselves fighting the state on so many levels, and in him we found honesty,” Brown said.
Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect deadline by which Duke Energy must provide either permanent water supplies or filtration systems to eligible well owners near coal ash pits. The correct deadline is October 2018.