Toxicologist’s deposition reveals disagreements within state agencies over how risks were described to well owners living near Duke Energy coal ash waste.
By Catherine Clabby
Since state toxicologist Ken Rudo’s sworn deposition describing how state leaders alerted citizens to coal ash well water threats went public this week, angry accusations have been flying in every direction.
Most dramatically, Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, called a late night press conference to accuse the veteran scientist of lying under oath, a charge Rudo has dismissed. Stith said McCrory did not participate in a meeting the scientist said he was summoned to attend at the governor’s office, even though Rudo said McCrory appeared to check in, briefly, by phone.
But look past that red-hot charge and something else significant stands out: In the deposition, Rudo claims dissent arose early among seasoned health experts about the letters. Rudo was particularly opposed to how state agency leaders chose to describe – and downplay – the risks from well water contaminants that may have come from the coal ash.
That means disputes over how to respond to the risk posed to well owners occurred earlier than was previously revealed.
In part of a sworn deposition made public in a federal court filing this week, Rudo said he resisted for “moral” and “ethical” reasons signing the letters that state agencies dispatched to hundreds of citizens in fall 2015, after elevated levels of contaminants were found in their wells. Both substances — hexavalent chromium and vanadium — occur naturally in North Carolina and have been detected in coal ash waste, though the source of the chemicals in the wells is not yet clear.
Rudo opposed language, that says that despite wells exceeding state health screening levels for the contaminants, the wells met the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act standard. Not disclosed, Rudo stressed, is that the federal government doesn’t yet regulate hexavalent chromium or vanadium.
Just one of the communities affected by coal ash. The Caswell County community of Semora surrounds the Duke Energy Hyco Plant. A number of Semora homeowners received letters about the water in their wells.
Rudo claims the language was supported by Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. But it had never been included in thousands of notices Rudo had earlier helped prepare regarding state health screenings of contaminants.
“[W]e have never sent out a mixed signal with the Health Risk Evaluations that we send,” Rudo said, in his testimony taken under oath. “People look at them and they understand it. This was a — the mother of mixed signals. I mean, it was a mixed signal to me.”
“It was so bad that when Dr. Davies instructed me to start calling everybody, which was a very arduous thing, to try and call 400 people, a lot of the people weren’t sure what to do because of the language.”
Another peek inside
Dr. Davies is Megan Davies, the current state epidemiologist and a former acting health director. Rudo said Davies told him and a colleague to phone hundreds of people who received the letters to make sure they were not confused about the health risks they faced.
In her sworn deposition released in May, Davies revealed her opposition to letters Reeder and Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, sent in March 2016 withdrawing the do-not-drink advisories. (See timeline.)
One of the people Rudo contacted, after he said Davies asked for him to call well-owners, was Debra Baker, a widow and mother of a 19-year-old son who has lived in Belmont within sight of Duke Energy’s Allen Steam Plant property for 20 years.
Baker said she was alarmed by the mailing, which stated tests detected levels of vanadium (at 19.1 parts per billion) and hexavalent chromium (at .90 parts per billion) in her home well, and that because the levels exceeded the state’s health screening levels, she should not drink or bath in the water.
Rudo helped develop North Carolina’s health screening levels for the two contaminants, among the strictest in the country: 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium, which may be linked to stomach cancers and .3 parts per billion for vanadium, which in very high doses can cause lung damage.
She said she wondered if her son, while drinking baby formula or eating at home all those years, or her late husband, a nonsmoker who died in 2008 from a lung disorder, could have been harmed by their water.
When Baker read the passage in that first mailing that Rudo opposed, the one about the federal drinking water standards, she was more confused. “It’s like they were saying do one thing and in the next paragraph they were saying it’s all alright,” Baker said.
Baker said she was shocked but grateful to hear directly from Rudo, a PhD-holding toxicologist, just a few days after the letter arrived. She said she appreciates the time and care he took to explain what the letter intended, particularly that she and her son should not drink their water, nor should her pets, she said.
More confusion spawned
When Baker received a very different message a scant seven months later from high-ranking state health and environmental leaders rescinding the do-not-drink advisory, she was really bewildered.
“I wondered what the heck is going on,” Baker said. “Nothing has changed. No one has tested my well water. All they did was up the levels that are allowed. Then you are like, ‘Who do I trust?’”
“The only person I really trust is Ken Rudo.”
State health and environmental agencies spokeswomen have criticized the Southern Environmental Law Center for releasing depositions of other state health officials, saying the documents are incomplete and misleading. (See timeline.)
Duke Energy Corp. asked a federal judge to bar SELC from releasing Rudo’s deposition, specifically, because they argued it was “hearsay” and could impede the utility from receiving a fair trial in coal-ash related court cases. But SELC submitted more than 50 pages of the document in a federal court filing this week that argues disclosure of the testimony is in the public interest.
After Baker read about the controversy regarding Rudo’s deposition this week, she called his office in Raleigh to express her support. Tomorrow she and other well owners near the Duke Energy Allen property who are still dependent on bottled water will hold a press conference to discuss Rudo.
They won’t condemn him, she said. They’ll sing his praise.
Homeowners argue the letters they received from the NC Department of Environmental Quality were confusing and contained mixed messages. The letters themselves acknowledge “the complexity of this letter.”
Mixed messages in letters sent to well owners living near coal ash ponds (PDF)