McCrory administration wages war of words over scientist's coal ash deposition

Posted August 2, 2016

— Gov. Pat McCrory's administration went to extraordinary lengths Tuesday night to question the sworn deposition of Ken Rudo, a state toxicologist who said administration officials misled homeowners about the safety of well water near unlined coal ash pits owned by Duke Energy.

Not only did the state Department of Health and Human Services, the agency for which Rudo works, put out a news release refuting his sworn statements, but McCrory Chief of Staff Thomas Stith issued a news release and then held a hastily arranged late-night news conference saying that Rudo was lying about a meeting in which the scientist says McCrory participated by phone.

"We don't know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting, as he suggests," Stith said just after 9:15 p.m., speaking to television reporters in the rotunda of the historic State Capitol. Reporters for newspapers and wire services said over social media they were not notified of the news conference.

Rudo Tuesday night stood by his deposition, which included statements in which he suggested administration officials such as the state health director put homeowners at risk when the agency told them the presence of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium was not high enough to recommend not drinking well water.

"My deposition speaks for itself," he told WRAL News.

That document, which was attached to a federal court filing Tuesday, details Rudo's recollection of heading out on vacation only to be called back to Raleigh for a meeting at the governor's office. The deposition says McCrory called into that meeting for a few minutes, after which administration Communications Director Josh Ellis discussed with Rudo the wording of warning letters to well owners.

"It's not like we were on the phone for 20, 30 minutes. In my deposition, I said it was only a few minutes," Rudo recalled Tuesday night.

At the time, Rudo said he did not think much of the meeting other than it was unusual for a state scientist to be summoned to such a high-level affair.

Thomas Stith

Coal ash has a long and complicated history in North Carolina but tracks its status as a front-and-center political issue to Feb. 2, 2014, when a shuttered Duke steam station spilled tons of the toxin-laced sludge into the Dan River. That focused attention not only on the existence of the pits but on a string of ongoing lawsuits in which environmental groups were pressing Duke to clean up coal ash ponds.

The McCrory administration was also involved in that litigation, by its own account pressing the company to clean up the ash pits. But environmentalists say the administration was running interference for the politically connected company, and they suggest that fact drags on McCrory, who was a long-time Duke employee.

Questions about whether ash that was mixed with water and stored in unlined basins could contaminate groundwater and surface water have been at the heart of many of the legal challenges brought by the environmental community, many of them led by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Duke has insisted the evidence of contamination is not conclusive.

Nevertheless, the company helped bring three years of legal and legislative wrangling over how North Carolina would handle coal ash law to a close this summer by backing a bill that requires the company to provide permanent drinking water supplies to neighbors of many of its coal ash pits. Many of those neighbors are now relying on bottled water, provided at Duke's expense, rather than risk poisoning their families.

"The fact is, the state sent homeowners near the coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about drinking water," Stith said Tuesday night.

That echoes a statement provided by Kendra Gerlach, Department of Health and Human Services communications director, earlier in the day.

However, state officials have been far from clear in their communications with many well owners. After initially warning them not to drink potentially carcinogen-laced water in 2015, they doubled back and doubled back again this year, sending successive letters to some well owners about whether it was safe to drink their water, occasionally prodded by news reports that they had failed to follow through on promised notifications.

The conflict between Rudo's deposition and statements by Stith and Gerlach Tuesday are just as confusing.

Homeowners, lawmakers slam state approach to coal ash cleanup

"We wanted to make it crystal clear, we're not going to stand by idly while individuals make false statements and lie under oath," Stith said, disputing Rudo's version of events.

Gerlach's statement read in part, "The Governor did not participate in that meeting, nor did he summon Ken Rudo. I was the one calling our public health officials, including Rudo. During my call with Rudo, he volunteered to come by, and I said yes. He then joined Josh Ellis and me in person to answer some of the questions being discussed."

Asked by WRAL News if she was saying that Rudo was lying under oath, or perhaps mistaken, Gerlach simply pointed to her statement. When asked the same question by The Associated Press, she reportedly said, "Absolutely not."

There seems to be no way that Gerlach's version of events and Rudo's can be the same. Reached by phone Tuesday night, Rudo recounted being called to a meeting in a recitation that tracked closely with his sworn deposition.

"Dr. Megan Davies, our section chief, was the person who called me and told me to go to this meeting at the governor's office. It wasn't voluntary. I was told to go," Rudo said.

A few minutes into that meeting, McCrory called Ellis' cellphone, he said.

"It wasn't on speakerphone, but you could hear him talking. And we were talking to Josh and I guess to him. But it was more him talking and making the suggestion on how we might want to explain contamination to the residents," Rudo recalled.

As part of her statement, Gerlach said that filing Rudo's statement in the open court record was "clearly a politically motivated attempt to manipulate and mislead the public by trial lawyers from an extreme left-wing environmental group, through the use of partially released depositions."

Rudo, for his part, says he is a Republican who voted for McCrory in 2012.

After making a statement at the Capitol, Stith took a few questions from reporters.

Asked whether he believed the administration put well owners' health at risk, he said, "I think the department has been very consistent and this administration's first priority has been the health and safety of our citizens. We have been been very deliberate in providing full information to the citizens and letting them know what risks exist and, quite frankly, what risks don't exist."

This has been a point of contention between DHHS scientists like Rudo and officials with the Department of Environmental Quality, who say Rudo and his colleagues were being too conservative in their approach. Rudo, who has worked for DHHS for nearly three decades, said in his testimony that DHHS has long erred on the side of issuing simple, cautious messages when it comes to potential contamination.

Asked why Rudo would potentially open himself to accusations of lying under oath, Stith said, "You will have to ask Mr. Rudo that, and candidly, it will be a court of law to determine if he has perjured himself. We're saying what he is saying is not true."

But Rudo insists he was using notes of the meeting when he gave his deposition and still retains those notes.

Asked if the administration had its own notes or other recordings of the meeting, McCrory spokesman Graham Wilson said he did not know if any such records exist.


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all
  • Lee Outland Aug 7, 11:27 p.m.
    user avatar

    Stith and Gerlach are lying minions... Rudo voted for McLiar. Why would he lie? He has no reason to lie. I read through ALL the depositions of these people at DWR and DHHS. They are being truthful! DENR and DHHS management are NOT!!! McLiar and his "support staff" are caught AGAIN!!! Going Down, Gov. McDukey... Bubb-BYE...

  • Ken Ackerman Aug 4, 6:24 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    I don't know what a Jack Reacher movie is but Industry and Political Leaders are willing to kill off the "little" people. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that many corporations will do anything to make a profit. There's also plenty of evidence in the news every day that politicians on one side of the isle will turn their backs on the very people that elected them.

  • Sam Nada Aug 3, 11:35 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    You have me confused me with another poster. I never said Mr. Rudo offered proof, just that I would wager he has evidence to back up his statements.

  • Clif Bardwell Aug 3, 10:43 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    No, you stated that Mr. Rudo was offering proof, and that was why McCrory was attacking him. I simply pointed out that Mr. Rudo was not offering any proof, that he merely was making an accusation. I can't say whether Mr. Rudo has any proof or not, but if he does, indeed, have proof then he should present it.

  • Sam Nada Aug 3, 10:26 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    You strongly implied that Rudo has no evidence for his statements. I would wager you are wrong. Then you assert without evidence that Duke Energy puts the possible health risks to a segment of its customers above a cost of $Billions. I would wager you are also wrong about that. Here's my evidence for the $ figure:


  • Gladys Williams Aug 3, 9:58 a.m.
    user avatar

    This will haunt McCoalAsh long after his reign of filth has exited!

  • Clif Bardwell Aug 3, 9:15 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    And I didn't say McCrory offered any "proof".

    I'm sorry, but I don't watch a whole lot of Jack Reacher type movies, but that seems to be where most people get the idea that industry and political leaders are willing to kill off their customers or supporters for the gain of a few thousand dollars.

  • Sam Nada Aug 3, 8:57 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    So is the accusation without evidence that Rudo is lying.

    I'd put my money on Rudo having supporting evidence for his statements about the meeting and the water quality. Who has more to gain by being untruthful, McCrory and Duke Energy, or Rudo?

  • George Matthis Aug 3, 8:55 a.m.
    user avatar

    I have known Ken Rudo for decades and have first hand knowledge as to how he reviews health information and notifications to the public. Without a doubt he operates exactly as he stated. Unfortunately the McCrory Administration is not about serving the people, so its no wonder they have issues with not only what Ken has stated, but the fact that the Governor attempted to alter the outcome and it has become public knownledge. This administration is without a doubt the most corrupt, lying batch of political operatives that the state has seen during my lifetime and I'm hoping they will be gone after the election. North Carolina deserves better leadership.

  • Clif Bardwell Aug 3, 8:26 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Proof? What "proof"? Mr. Rudo only stated that "administration officials misled homeowners about the safety of well water". That's not "proof", that's an accusation.