State Politics

Former state scientist says officials undermining public confidence

Opponents of state's handling of coal ash rally in Raleigh in 2016

Bobby Jones of Goldsboro and Jennifer Worrell of Wayne County join a rally in opposition to the state's handling of well water near coal ash ponds.
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Bobby Jones of Goldsboro and Jennifer Worrell of Wayne County join a rally in opposition to the state's handling of well water near coal ash ponds.

The McCrory administration’s offensive against a state scientist who clashed with political appointees over the safety of drinking water undermines people’s confidence in public health, his former supervisor said in an interview Thursday, one day after she resigned in protest.

Dr. Megan Davies, who until quitting Wednesday was state epidemiologist, said a joint statement issued Tuesday by state health and environmental officials criticizing toxicologist Kenneth Rudo falsely claimed Rudo came up with strict health-screening limits on well water safety on his own.

“They knew very well this wasn’t one rogue scientist,” Davies said.

Davies, Rudo and other state public health staff testified in lawsuit depositions that they had concerns about rescinding do-not-drink notices issued to hundreds of well owners near Duke Energy coal ash basins earlier this year. Rudo’s testimony brought the issue to Gov. Pat McCrory’s doorstep when he said he was called to the governor’s office to discuss the wording of the do-not-drink notices.

The administration set out to discredit Rudo, saying he was trying to impose safe water thresholds that he came up with on his own, and that he lied about the governor’s involvement. The controversy expanded beyond Rudo on Wednesday, when Davies resigned and accused the state of misleading the public.

Davies said it’s important that people have confidence that public health warnings and orders are based on the law and science. She said the statement by the officials – Tom Reeder and Davies’ boss, Dr. Randall Williams – which they described as an open letter to the editor, undermined that.

“To tell someone living in this state they might receive a letter from a government agency telling you not to use your water for drinking and cooking, and it’s because some guy just decided that’s what he wanted to do – that’s just not true, and that’s a scary thought,” Davies said.

When I read that open editorial, and it was sent out by the government I work for, I knew I had to speak up and tell people that is not how public health works in North Carolina. And once I said that I couldn’t keep working

Dr. Megan Davies

“When I read that open editorial, and it was sent out by the government I work for, I knew I had to speak up and tell people that is not how public health works in North Carolina. And once I said that I couldn’t keep working.”

McCrory, calling in to Fayetteville radio station WFNC on Thursday, was asked about Davies.

“She’s a good person,” he said. “We just strongly disagree with her assessment.”

McCrory portrayed the controversy as a disagreement over how much information to provide well owners. The governor wanted to include a notice that the wells met federal safety standards, but Rudo and others said that would be misleading and contradictory.

Also on Thursday, a group of about 30 environmental advocates protested in front of the governor’s mansion in downtown Raleigh, where they expressed support for Rudo and Davies and called on Reeder and Williams to resign.

The state Department of Health and Human Services, were Williams is the state health director, and the Department of Environmental Quality, where Reeder is an assistant secretary, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, DHHS issued a statement about Davies’ resignation. The statement was attributed to , the DHHS secretary, who said he accepted her resignation and wished her well.

“It is important for North Carolina citizens to know that, while there are differences of opinion and we respect those differences, ensuring citizens’ safety and communicating are our top priorities,” Brajer said. “Throughout this process, we’ve provided full information to homeowners about the safety of their drinking water and have taken appropriate steps to reassure citizens who had been unduly alarmed.”

Dr. Zack Moore, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical epidemiologist, was named acting section chief and state epidemiologist.

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