Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Water near Duke Energy's Dumps Not Safe to Drink, Toxicologist Says

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Water near Duke Energy's Dumps Not Safe to Drink, Toxicologist Says

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - North Carolina's top public health official acted unethically and possibly illegally by telling residents living near Duke Energy coal ash pits that their well water is safe to drink when it's contaminated with a chemical known to cause cancer, a state toxicologist said in sworn testimony. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the 220-page deposition given last month by toxicologist Ken Rudo as part of a lawsuit filed against Duke by a coalition of environmental groups. The nation's largest electricity company has asked a federal judge to seal the record, claiming its public disclosure would potentially prejudice jurors.

Rudo's boss, state public health director Dr. Randall Williams, in March reversed earlier warnings that had told hundreds of affected residents not to drink their water. The water is contaminated with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium at levels many times higher than Rudo had determined is safe.

"The state health director's job is to protect public health," testified Rudo, who has been the state's toxicologist for nearly 30 years. "And in this specific instance, the opposite occurred. He knowingly told people that their water was safe when we knew it wasn't."

Rudo also described being summoned for a highly unusual 2015 meeting at the office of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked for Duke Energy for nearly three decades prior to his election. McCrory was away and listened in on speakerphone as his communications director, Josh Ellis, asked Rudo why it was necessary to warn the residents.

"Their concern was initially telling people not to drink the water, Rudo testified. "They felt that was a strong thing to do."

Rudo said the water warnings were required under state law once testing had shown the wells to be contaminated at what he had determined were unsafe levels of a cancer-causing chemical.

Ellis did not respond Tuesday to messages seeking comment.

Kendra Gerlach, communications director for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said she was also in the meeting in Ellis' office and said McCrory did not "participate."

"This is clearly a politically motivated attempt to manipulate and mislead the public," Gerlach said.

Asked if she was accusing Rudo of lying under oath about McCrory being on the phone during the meeting, Gerlach responded, "Absolutely not."

McCrory and his close ties to Duke Energy have been under scrutiny since a massive 2014 spill from one of the company's coal ash dumps coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

Environmentalists complain McCrory's administration stymied efforts to hold Duke accountable for polluting groundwater. McCrory denies any preferential treatment to his former employer.

Before the spill, McCrory's administration had proposed settling environmental violations at Duke's power plants for a total of $99,000 in fines. …

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