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State epidemiologist quits, says agencies misleading public about well water safety

Posted August 10, 2016 5:17 p.m. EDT
Updated August 10, 2016 11:48 p.m. EDT

— The state's epidemiologist resigned her position Wednesday afternoon, accusing officials in the state's environmental and health agencies of misleading the public and pushing a "false narrative" in their criticism of a state scientist who helped develop safety advisories for well owners near Duke Energy coal ash ponds.

In her resignation letter, shared with several members of the press, Dr. Megan Davies said an editorial issued earlier in the week from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality incorrectly attributed the establishment of health screening standards solely to Ken Rudo, a toxicologist in Davies' division.

"Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department's leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public," Davies wrote. "I cannot work for a Department and and Administration that deliberately misleads the public."

Davies' resignation is effective immediately. She was an eight-year employee of DHHS whose prior position was a medical epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Today, we have accepted the resignation of Dr. Megan Davies," said DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer in a statement. "We wish her well in her future endeavors.

"It is important for North Carolina citizens to know that, while there are differences of opinion and we respect those differences, ensuring citizens’ safety and communicating are our top priorities," Brajer continued. "Throughout this process, we’ve provided full information to homeowners about the safety of their drinking water and have taken appropriate steps to reassure citizens who had been unduly alarmed. We remain committed to the health and safety of our citizens."

Requests for comment to DEQ and the Governor's Office were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The editorial issued Tuesday afternoon was signed by by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and DHHS Deputy Secretary for Health Services Dr. Randall Williams. In it, the two officials say Rudo created "unnecessary fear and confusion" for well owners with elevated levels of toxic elements such as hexavalent chromium in their water and claimed he used "his own threshold" to evaluate safety – a threshold much more stringent the federal standards.

Sworn testimony from Davies and even Williams himself has disputed the suggestion that Rudo acted on his own, and Davies reiterated in her resignation letter that the health screening level was calculated and agreed upon by toxicologists and other scientists in DHHS and DEQ.

"My staff presented the levels and the rationale for them to me, and we briefed Division and Department leadership extensively, including the Department counsel," Davies wrote. "The course of action followed was fully vetted and approved through to the Secretary of Health and Human Services at that time, Dr. [Aldona] Wos."

The editorial from Reeder and Williams came days after the release of a partial transcript of sworn testimony Rudo made under questioning in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups against Duke. Rudo said in his statement, part of a public court filing, that he was called to a meeting at the governor's office to discuss how to communicate findings of elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and other elements to homeowners. In that meeting with communications staffers from the Governor's Office and DHHS, Rudo said Gov. Pat McCrory called in and joined the discussion.

It's a claim the Governor's Office vehemently denied in a rare late-night news conference, accusing Rudo of lying under oath. They've also attributed Rudo's comments to a political campaign by environmental groups to discredit McCrory over coal ash.

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr said Davies' resignation over the statements from Williams and Reeder "shows this administration and its political appointees are choosing to protect polluters over people.

"The fact that she is willing to and did resign, ending her career with the state, speaks volumes to her respect … for Dr. Rudo," Starr said. "She has literally put her career on the line to back up his position and his deposition."

Dr. Zack Moore, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical epidemiologist, has assumed the role of acting Epidemiology Section chief and state epidemiologist.