Environmental advocates hope to compel McCrory's chief of staff to testify on coal ash
Posted October 4, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — Environmental advocates want a state judge to force Gov. Pat McCrory's chief of staff to testify about interactions between the state and Duke Energy as part of a long-running suit over coal ash cleanup.
Thomas Stith declined to answer questions about coal ash cleanup during a deposition on Sept. 1, according to motions filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents a number of environmental groups seeking to force Duke to remove coal ash from unlined storage pits across the state.
"As the Governor's Chief of Staff, who interacts with state agencies and their leaders as well as outside groups, Mr. Stith has knowledge directly relevant to Duke Energy's claims that the actions of (the state Department of Environmental Quality) and the state government are adequate to address Duke Energy's coal ash pollution and on the motives and biases of state officials and the courses they have chosen with respect to Duke Energy's coal ash pollution," the motion reads.
McCroy's office says that it has more than cooperated with SELC as part of the lawsuit.
"Despite the fact that our office has no relevancy to this legal case, we've done more than enough to accommodate the SELC's request by voluntarily allowing the deposition of two employees and producing hundreds of pages of documents," said Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesman. "We’re not going to subject state employees to what we view as an abuse of the legal process, especially when it is increasingly clear that the goal for the SELC is publicity, not fact finding. More importantly, the SELC is attempting to distract attention from the fact that other parties involved have resoundingly rejected Ken Rudo’s statements under oath."
Ken Rudo, a state toxicologist, said in a deposition that state officials misled people about the safety of water drawn from wells near coal ash pits. In that same deposition, Rudo reported a meeting where he had met with officials form the Governor's Office and, for a short period via phone, McCrory himself about his findings on coal ash.
That prompted Stith to hold an unusual late night news conference in which he accused Rudo of lying under oath.
Coal ash is the material left over after coal is burned to generate electricity. Much of it is inert, but it does contain heavy metals and other toxic materials. Environmental groups, the state and Duke were already involved in a battle over curbing long-term pollution in ground and surface water in February 2014 when a burst pipe at a shuttered coal-fired power plant spewed thousands of tons of toxic sludge into the Dan River.
Since then, the state's oversight of coal ash cleanup has been a major political issue. McCrory worked for Duke for more than 28 years before becoming governor, prompting both lawmakers and environmentalists to question DEQ's ability to oversee the cleanup since the agency reports to him. Those questions were heightened by the revelation of at least one closed-door meeting between the governor and Duke officials, as well as Rudo's criticism.
When he faced his own deposition, Stith voluntarily discussed that news conference. In a transcript of his deposition, Stith was pressed on whether he read Rudo's deposition before making the accusation.
"As I said earlier, I had seen parts of his deposition in the press," Stith said.
As to other coal ash topics, Stith declined to comment. His lawyer, J. Dickson Phillips, a private attorney hired to represent the Governor's Office, argued that Stith was not involved in coal ash cleanup.
"He is not a scientist, and he has no duties in the departments that have been primarily involved in the issues of collecting data and evaluating the data related to the coal ash ponds. So, we don't think he has any competent evidence to offer in this case," Phillips argued.
Still, the motion and accompanying material inflamed critics of McCrory, who say he has gone easy on his old employer.
"It now appears that Gov. McCrory’s chief of staff attacked a state scientist and accused him of perjury without even reading the deposition," Dave Miranda, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said in a statement. "Instead of taking responsibility, the governor simply let his staff smear the reputation of a state water scientist. There needs to be a full investigation of this shameful scandal immediately."