RALEIGH – Environmental groups opposing Gov. Pat McCrory have seized on the under-oath deposition statements of Ken Rudo, a toxicologist for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, to accuse the governor of interfering in ‘do-not-drink’ recommendations for private wells around coal ash ponds.
This isn’t the first time that Rudo has created a public controversy. His current accusations against other scientists and the governor mirror a similar controversy that boiled over in 1997 between Rudo and an N.C. State University scientist named JoAnn Burkholder. A June 5, 1997, Associated Press article highlighted a confidential memo from Rudo that was leaked to the press. The memo attacked Burkholder, calling her “not normal by any standard.” The memo claimed that on a telephone call with Rudo she told him that certain top health officials “deserved to die.” In the memo, Rudo also wrote that Burkholder “really didn’t give me a chance to talk” when they spoke by phone.
Burkholder’s audio recording of the same conversation characterized by Rudo proved his accusations to be either exaggerated or false. The AP article stated that “the 35-minute tape shows that he [Rudo] carries the conversation” rather than Burkholder dominating the discussion and the AP writer, Scott Mooneyham, also challenged Rudo’s “not normal” characterization by saying that Burkholder “doesn’t sound irrational.” The tapes also reveal that Burkholder did not say state health officials “deserved to die.”
When confronted with the direct evidence against his characterizations of Burkholder and the memo, Rudo attacked the recording as “profoundly dishonest” and said that he felt “violated” while making no comment as to the discrepancies between the memo and the audio tape.
The controversy and public support of Burkholder caused some public relations problems for Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat. Environment and health secretary Jonathan Howes had to make a public apology to Burkholder. Now, almost 20 years later, Rudo is back in the headlines.
According to an Aug. 2 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, McCrory, a Republican, summoned Rudo to his office in early 2015 for a meeting about drinking water notifications to homeowners around coal ash ponds. The Journal report was based on leaked deposition statements where Rudo said he was called, after hours, to the governor’s office because “the Governor wanted to discuss [health risk evaluations that were being drafted by DHHS].” Rudo claimed in his sworn testimony that “he [the Governor] participated for a couple of minutes by phone” in a meeting held at the Capitol attended by McCrory’s communications director Josh Ellis, Ellis’s assistant, DHHS communications staffer Kendra Gerlach, and Rudo.
When asked in the deposition to “tell us [lawyers in the deposition] what the Governor said about his concern or why he had called you over there” Rudo was general in his comments about the governor’s concerns. Later in his deposition, Rudo was asked by the lawyers to read some of his notes into the minutes. In those notes, Rudo characterized the meeting as a request to “meet with the Governor’s Press Secretary and Kendra Gerlach about coal ash form” and he noted that during the meeting, Josh Ellis “took a call from the Governor about something else, but told him we were there for the coal ash well issue.”
Shortly after the Winston-Salem Journal article was published, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, released a statement accusing Rudo of lying under oath and said that “the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting as he suggests.” Kendra Gerlach also refuted Rudo’s testimony saying, “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.”
The current controversy revolves around an apparent debate between DHHS health officials and then-DENR water officials over water contamination thresholds under the federal Clean Water Act. Rudo advocated for permissible levels that DENR Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder called so stringent that users of 70 percent of public water systems in the country would be told not to drink their water if DHHS’s standard were used. In testimony before the North Carolina General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission on Jan. 13, Reeder said that the level DHHS used for chromium is more than 1,400 times more stringent than the federal standard.
“Most of the major cities in the United States, including all major metropolitan areas in North Carolina, provide water every day to their customers that would technically receive a “do not drink” notification from the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Reeder. The state's environmental department, previously known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, is now known as the Department of Environmental Quality.
At that same January meeting, Dr. Megan Davies, chief epidemiologist for DHHS’s Division of Public Health, said that the DHHS letters to residents were “recommendations, not regulatory requirements.”
North Carolina's public water officials have expressed concern over the limit Rudo chose for chromium. According to Raleigh’s public utilities website, hexavalent chromium is not a concern in levels that test under the federal limit of 100 ppb. Other municipal water systems use similar language in communications to their users.
“Something just doesn’t seem right at all about that,” said Robert Massengill, the director of Raleigh's water system following the January hearing. “We are trying to get clarification to find out where they came up with those numbers, what assumptions they’ve made, and what the implications are for public drinking water standards because right now we don’t have a standard for that and we are at a non-detect level anyway.”
While the scientific debates may continue over the appropriate levels of chromium in wells and water systems, the impact of Rudo’s accusations are also being seen in the political debates. Shortly after Rudo’s testimony was leaked, the Southern Environmental Law Center reserved $650,000 in 60-second advertisements in the Charlotte, Raleigh, Greenville and Wilmington markets for August 8 through August 29. Whether the advertisements will highlight the Rudo accusations remains to be seen, but environmental issues will most certainly be front and center as the 2016 election for Governor heads into the fall.