Under the Dome

Top aides to be questioned about coal ash well water warnings

Top aides in the McCrory administration will have to testify under oath about a 2015 meeting on how to word do-not-drink warnings to well owners who live near Duke Energy coal ash ponds.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has served notices of depositions on Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, and his communications director, Josh Ellis. Discussions are underway with state health department attorneys to set a deposition date for that agency’s communications director, Kendra Gerlach, according to SELC spokeswoman Kathleen Sullivan.

In addition, the SELC has subpoenaed a sweeping array of records from the governor’s office, including three years’ worth of emails and other documents related to coal ash and Duke Energy, as well as records relating to state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo, Gerlach and comments Stith made at a news conference this month aimed at discrediting Rudo. Records relating to coal ash pond neighbors with private wells are also sought.

Ellis is to be deposed on Sept. 1 and Stith on Sept. 2, according to the notices, which were served Monday.

Earlier this month, Stith called a 9:30 p.m. news conference to dispute claims by Rudo, a state toxicologist, in a deposition about the 2015 meeting that had just been filed in court. Stith said McCrory never took part in nor requested the meeting.

Stith said he didn’t know why Rudo had “lied under oath.” But in his remarks at the news conference, Stith didn’t necessarily conflict with Rudo’s testimony.

Rudo had testified that he had been called to the governor’s office to talk about the notices. He said McCrory wasn’t present, but that Ellis talked to the governor on the phone during the meeting and relayed the governor’s concerns about overstating the warnings. Rudo said in his deposition he thought that was “highly unethical and possibly illegal.” Gerlach was also at the meeting.

The depositions are part of a lawsuit brought by the environmental law firm on behalf of environmental organizations to ensure that ash from 14 Duke Energy coal-fired power plants is cleaned up.

The governor’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services released the following statement Tuesday:

“The Governor’s Office is not a party to any of the lawsuits in question. The administration’s goal is to continue to provide homeowners all facts and safety information about drinking water, while connecting affected well owners to municipal water supplies at Duke’s expense.”

Last week, Rudo’s boss, state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies, resigned in protest over the administration’s claims that Rudo developed a restrictive threshold for well contamination on his own. She said that misrepresented the state’s public health process.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO