Under the Dome

Top McCrory aide disputes official’s version of coal ash drinking water meeting

Thomas Stith
Thomas Stith

Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff called a late-night news conference Tuesday to dispute a state toxicologist’s claim that the governor summoned him to his office earlier this year to discuss rescinding do-not-drinking notices that had been sent to well-owners who live near coal ash ponds.

Ken Rudo, a 30-year veteran of the state Department of Health and Human Services, testified in a recent deposition that he disagreed with the decision by the public health director to rescind the water safety warning. Rudo said it was "highly unethical and possibly illegal." Rudo said he was summoned to the governor’s office in downtown Raleigh to discuss the matter, and that McCrory participated by phone for a few minutes.

Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff, said that did not happen.

It has been previously reported that the governor’s office expressed concerns about the wording of the notice to well-owners, who have been living off of Duke Energy-provided bottled waters for more than a year. There are concerns that cancer-causing elements have seeped from the unlined coal ash basins into nearby wells, but that has not been confirmed.

Several other DHHS employees have testified under oath that they also were concerned when the agency and the Department of Environmental Quality rescinded the warning in March. Part of Rudo’s deposition became public Tuesday when it was filed along with a motion by the Southern Environmental Law Center opposing Duke Energy’s attempt to keep it secret. The utility has said Rudo is not in a position to know what he claims to know.

As reporters began looking into the deposition Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s office scrambled Tuesday night to stave off any further implication that McCrory took an active role in rescinding the water notices.

Thomas Stith, the governor’s chief of staff, held a news conference about 9:30 p.m., where he read the following statement:

"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. The fact is that the state sent homeowners near coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about their drinking water and thanks to the McCrory administration's efforts, well owners are being hooked up to municipal water supplies at Duke Energy's expense."

Stith acknowledged the governor’s office was involved along with DHHS in discussions about how to handle the notices, but he said it was to ensure people were given accurate information.

"We want to make it crystal clear that we’re not going to stand by idyly while individuals make false statements and lies under oath," Stith said during a brief question-and-answer period.

Only a handful of TV reporters were notified of the late news conference. Afterward, the governor’s office provided The News & Observer with a copy of the audio of Stith’s remarks.