State scientist responds to public criticism from agency bosses over well water safety

Posted August 9, 2016 7:11 p.m. EDT
Updated August 10, 2016 12:01 p.m. EDT

A Duke Energy contractor delivers bottled water to a home on Leonard Road in Salisbury, N.C., near the Buck steam plant on April 7, 2016 (Tyler Dukes/WRAL).

— North Carolina environmental and health officials have doubled down on criticism of a state scientist who testified under oath that he was summoned to the governor's office to discuss what to tell homeowners who lived near coal ash pits and had elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in their well water.

Now that state scientist has responded.

An open letter issued by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services Tuesday afternoon accused state toxicologist Ken Rudo of inconsistent scientific conclusions and "unprofessional" conduct in sworn statements he made about potentially toxic compounds in drinking water. Those depositions were recorded as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Duke Energy by environmental groups.

"Recent media stories and editorials have given support to the questionable and inconsistent scientific conclusions reached by toxicologist Ken Rudo and have created unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water," reads the letter signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and DHHS Deputy Secretary for Health Services Dr. Randall Williams.

In a detailed statement released to WRAL News through his attorney Monday, Rudo said the statement by Reeder and Williams was "demonstrably inaccurate" and said any fear and confusion among residents was the result of agency officials overriding scientific consensus.

"Dr. Rudo believes he has been personally and wrongfully impugned by state officials for the past week for his having the temerity to merely speak the truth," the statement, first reported by The Associated Press, read. "Being attacked by powerful state officials is unnerving enough; but it is particularly distressing when these personal attacks go to the heart of Dr. Rudo's most prized earthly possession: his integrity and are utterly false."

Rudo is being represented by J. Heydt Philbeck of Raleigh law firm Bailey & Dixon.

Controversy over meeting

In his sworn testimony, Rudo says he was called to a meeting at the the governor's office, where a spokesman took a call from Gov. Pat McCrory and discussed the issue of well water notifications for several minutes while the governor was on the phone.

The Governor's Office has disputed that claim in both a rare late-night news conference and a letter to The News & Observer Tuesday afternoon.

Environmental and health officials initially told hundreds of well owners near Duke coal ash ponds not to use their water for drinking after testing found elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing element, and other toxic elements present in samples. Those recommendations stood until March, when the majority of those residents were told the water was safe. State officials attributed that reversal to a re-evaluation of the screening level for hexavalent chromium, which they previously set to be more stringent than federal standards. Months later, a handful of those well owners received a third letter telling them the state had erred and reinstated recommendations against drinking the water.

In the letter from Williams and Reeder, the two agency officials attributed the establishment of the lower hexavalent chromium threshold to Rudo, despite testimony from another DHHS scientist and Williams himself that the screening level was established by toxicologists at both DHHS and DEQ.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Reeder backed away from the letter's claim that Rudo "used his own threshold," noting that it was a creation of Rudo, DHHS and the health agency's epidemiology branch.

Rudo said in his statement that the hexavalent chromium threshold was far from subjective or his creation alone.

"In 2015, scientists and supervisory personnel reached this value as a consensus within the department. DEQ under Tom Reeder likewise reached this value as a consensus," Rudo's statement reads. "The value was utilized to protect public health of the residents adjacent to the coal ash ponds, as stated in the [Coal Ash Management Act] rule of 2014."

Reeder said Tuesday that no DEQ scientists he spoke with agreed on the do-not-drink recommendations at the lower threshold, and he maintained that the correct standard was the EPA's maximum allowable amount for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, many times higher than the standard set by DHHS.

He also accused Rudo of being an "attention seeker" and lying under oath in a sworn deposition in which he was called to testify. The line echoes statements by the McCrory administration, including Chief of Staff Thomas Stith, who has attributed Rudo's statements to a political campaign by environmental groups to discredit the governor.

Rudo told WRAL News in previous interviews that he stands by the statements in his sworn deposition, and said in the statement that he has been "truthful at all times." He also responded directly to criticism by Reeder and Williams that the state scientist chose not to apply the same standards to other well owners.

"Dr. Rudo wanted to apply this degree of health protection to all NC citizens' well water in 2015 and 2016, but the direction of the department (DHHS) was to abide by [the Coal Ash Management Act] to apply this protection to wells only near coal ash ponds," Rudo's statement reads.

DHHS spokeswoman Kate Murphy declined to respond to follow-up questions about the open letter Tuesday, saying the statement "stands as is."