State Politics

Testimony underlines governor’s role in coal ash health warnings

Officials survey the Dan River coal ash basin that failed in 2014 near Eden, N.C.
Officials survey the Dan River coal ash basin that failed in 2014 near Eden, N.C. N&O

A state official testified in a lawsuit deposition, made public on Thursday, that the governor’s office rewrote a health risk warning to private well owners near coal ash basins last year.

Kendra Gerlach, communications director for the state Department of Health and Human Services, testified that she received a fax from Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications staff instructing her to include a sentence in the 2015 warnings. The heads of both the state health and environment agencies had previously agreed with the wording.

The sentence reflected the administration’s desire to not overstate the risk of cancer from exposure to elements found in coal ash. A DHHS toxicologist, Ken Rudo, previously testified that he objected to that wording, saying the governor’s office was inappropriately downplaying the risk.

Officials with the governor’s office and the state health and environment agencies publicly criticized Rudo, and accused him as acting on his own. The governor’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, accused Rudo of lying. The state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Megan Davies, resigned in protest over the administration’s reaction.

In the September deposition, Gerlach testified that she did not know if Rudo was lying or not.

Her testimony supports Rudo’s testimony that the administration pushed for a less alarming warning. Administration officials have acknowledge there was a disagreement among state regulators over how best to communicate the risks.

Duke Energy has been providing hundreds of well owners drinking water for more than a year, but there has been no definite connection between the coal ash ponds and elevated levels of carcinogens in the well water.

Gerlach said it was common for the communications staff in the governor’s office to review and edit statements, especially when the issue involves multiple state agencies. The sentence was eventually included.

The depositions are part of lawsuit brought against Duke Energy by state regulators and environmental groups over coal ash pollution.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO