It's a rare thing when the governor's chief of staff convenes a Tuesday late-night press conference. It's a rarer thing when the governor's chief of staff convenes a Tuesday late-night press conference just to accuse a low-profile bureaucrat of lying under oath.
The bureaucrat in question is Kenneth Rudo, a state toxicologist (and registered Republican) who has worked in the Department of Health and Human Services since 1989. In a July 11 deposition made public earlier this month, Rudo testified that, while the DHHS and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) had initially agreed that people living near coal ash pits should not drink their well water, the McCrory administration then decided to downplay the risks before sending out do-not-drink notices.
"They wanted us to put it in the statement in the line where we were telling people not to drink their water, basically saying, 'Don't drink the water, but we are overreacting,'' Rudo testified. "That is essentially what it says."
In the spring of 2015, the state sent out nearly four hundred of those notices, which reassured well owners that their wells met federal drinking-water standards. (Unmentioned: no federal standards exist for hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen associated with coal ash.) A year later, however, after Duke Energy (which denies that coal ash has contaminated private wells) and legislative staffers lobbied state officials, the administration rescinded the warning, telling homeowners that their water "is as safe to drink as water in most cities and towns across the state and country."
Last Tuesday, a week after that late-night press conference, DHHS and DEQ leaders penned an editorial arguing that Rudo's "inconsistent scientific conclusions" had given rise to "unnecessary fear and confusion." That didn't sit well with Megan Davies, the state's epidemiologist. The next day, she resigned, saying she couldn't "work for a department and administration that deliberately misleads the public."
McCrory's DHHS isn't unfamiliar with scandal. Over the years, it's been criticized for everything from nepotism to excessive overtime, and twice the feds threatened to cut off food-stamp funds because the DHSS wasn't processing applications quickly enough.
But this is worse than bureaucratic ineptitude. This—if you believe Rudo and Davies—is a case of political hacks cravenly lying to people about the safety of their own drinking water. Even if there's debate over the science, the responsible administration errs on the side of caution. This administration erred on the side of a $23.5 billion-a-year corporation that so happens to be Governor McCrory's former employer. And it's not the first time.
After the Dan River spill in 2014, the state fined Duke $25 million. But last year, after McCrory and DEQ officials met secretly with Duke officials, regulators negotiated that settlement down to $6.6 million. Then, just last month, McCrory signed into law House Bill 630, which requires the DEQ to reclassify most of Duke's coal ash pits from "intermediate" to "low" risk if the utility provides neighbors with clean drinking water. The "low" assessment, in turn, allows the utility to cap the coal ash in place rather than excavating it, which would have been much more expensive.
So we have a pattern—and a potentially damning one at that. To my mind, if it's true that McCrory's team is willing to jeopardize lives to appease a corporate benefactor, then he has no business occupying the Executive Mansion. I suspect most voters would agree.
The question for voters, then, is this: Do you believe that Rudo and Davies, who have little to gain from putting their necks on the line, are lying? Or do you think the McCrory administration is trying to cover its ass?
This article appeared in print with the headline "The DHSS Dumpster Fire"