As the state toxicologist, Ken Rudo tells people what is safe to eat, drink or breathe, but Gov. Pat McCrory’s staff wanted him to focus on what is politically safe to say.
Rudo resisted pressure to tone down letters warning some 400 people who own wells near Duke Energy coal ash disposal sites that the water was unsafe to drink because it contained excessive levels of hexavalent chromium, a chemical known to cause cancer.
Rudo, the state’s toxicologist for more than 30 years, said in a lawsuit deposition first reported by the Associated Press that his balking caused him to be summoned to an April 2015 meeting at the governor’s office where the governor’s communications director Josh Ellis spoke with McCrory on the phone and then questioned Rudo about the language of the warning letters.
After the news report of Rudo’s sworn statements appeared, the governor’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, called an unusual evening news conference to say the governor was not involved in the meeting. He added, “We don’t know why Ken Rudo lied under oath.”
Rudo said his testimony is backed by emails and his notes. Of charges that he lied about the governor’s involvement, he told the AP, “I was speaking under oath; they are not.”
Regardless of McCrory’s direct role, his administration has acted badly. Summoning the state toxicologist to the governor’s office was clearly an act of intimidation. And having a top aide call a news conference to accuse a longtime public servant of perjury is crass and unfair.
Despite Rudo’s objections, his boss, state public health director Dr. Randall Williams and Department of Environment Quality officials issued notices telling well owners that the water met federal safety standards.
McCrory, who worked 28 years for Duke Energy, has a clear stake in the water safety issue. He signed legislation that does not require half of the 14 coal ash storage sites to be excavated, an approach that could save Duke Energy millions of dollars in removal costs. If water leaking from the sites is laced with a cancer-causing chemical, leaving the coal ash in place is hard to justify.
Rudo’s deposition was part of legal efforts backed by environmental groups seeking to clean coal ash disposal sites. Those efforts may ultimately lead to an excavation of all the coal ash – and perhaps the unearthing of the truth about state officials who would minimize the hazard.