Deposition: Controversial wording on coal ash came from governor's office
Posted October 20
Updated October 21
Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory's communication office directed state health officials to use the controversial language telling well owners near coal ash pits that their wells met federal standards despite objections from a state scientist, according to a deposition released Thursday.
In her sworn statement, Department of Health and Human Services Communication Director Kendra Gerlach says language on state Health Risk Evaluation forms came "from the Capitol building," a reference to the Governor's Office.
McCrory's office has repeatedly said all advice to residents was hammered out by agency experts and that neither the governor nor his staff played much of a role in developing the advisories.
The language in question advised well owners that, although they were receiving warnings about potential contamination from coal ash, in particular from a cancer-causing compound known as hexavalent chromium, it didn't exceed federal safe drinking water standards. That prompted objections from Ken Rudo, a state toxicologist, whose own deposition accused the administration of jeopardizing public health.
While Rudo still works for the state, State Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned in protest over the affair.
Gerlach gave her sworn deposition as part of a long-running legal challenge over how the state and Duke Energy handled the clean up of unlined coal ash pits across the state. Lawyers for environmental groups that are part of that suit released the transcript Thursday but declined to comment on the details.
Asked about the deposition, Gerlach and Stephanie Hawco, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality, insisted that scientists in the two departments agreed on the standards before the letters were sent. However, they did not explain why, if there was agreement, the governor's communications office was essentially issuing a directive to DHHS over the matter.
"The language you're referencing in the HREs was agreed upon by both the secretary of DHHS and the secretary of DEQ," Gerlach said Thursday when asked about her testimony.
"The emails are important because they show that the scientists were in agreement about the language – a point that has been widely mischaracterized," she said.
During her deposition, a lawyer asked Gerlach about Rudo's objections and DHHS' hopes that the language about federal standards would not be included in information sent to well owners.
"I received a fax with a sentence to be included," she replies.
Asked who sent the fax in particular, Gerlach said she didn't know.
"It came from the communications office, but I don't know the individual," she said.
In response to a question from WRAL News, McCrory Communications Director Josh Ellis referred questions to Hawco.