When the coal ash blew through the air in Sue Fife’s yard in Person County, she initially didn’t know what it was. “I thought, ‘What is this stuff?'” she said Thursday, before a rally in support of state toxicologist Ken Rudo and former state epidemiologist Megan Davies. “It looked like fog.”
Standing outside the governor’s mansion, the scientists’ supporters also called for the resignation or firing of both Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, and Randall Williams, the state health director, for allegedly failing to protect the public health.
Spokespeople for DEQ and DHHS could not be immediately reached for comment.
Fife has lived within a half-mile of Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant and coal ash pond since 1984. She had issues with her water even before Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds across the state were found to be leaking. Her water, which comes from a well in her backyard, was often brown, she said.
“Rudo told me not to drink the water,” said “But he told me, ‘They have tied my hands.’ We know that meant the higher ups. They need to stop sweeping stuff under the rug because you don’t think we know any better.”
She now buys bottled water to drink, but still bathes and cooks with well water.
Rudo has been assailed verbally and in writing by Reeder, Williams and Gov. Pat McCrory over statements he made under oath. In a deposition, Rudo explained about how the state decided to warn — or not to warn — people about levels of Chromium 6 and vanadium contamination, byproducts of coal ash, in their drinking water wells.
Reeder and Williams issued a joint editorial decrying Rudo, the media and environmental groups, accusing them of creating “unnecessary fear and confusion.” Via his chief of staff, McCrory attacked Rudo’s credibility in a late-night press conference. McCrory’s statements were followed, coincidentally, by an article in the North State Journal, attacking Rudo, which was written by a former McCrory staffer and campaign worker.
Also coincidentally, the decision to rescind the no-drink letters occurred around the time Duke Energy had called several meetings DEQ and DHHS leaders. At those meetings, Duke officials told DEQ and DHHS that they were displeased with the health warnings in the letters, according to the depositions. Soon after, Reeder demanded that the language in the letters be changed. Williams dictated the letter to Mina Sheehan, a DHHS environmental program manager, who typed them, according to Davies’ deposition.
Davies subsequently quit not only over Rudo’s treatment, but also, as she wrote in her resignation letter, because she could not “work for a department and an administration that misleads the public.”
Hope Taylor, a biochemist and the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, lambasted Reeder, telling the crowd that, for more than eight years she has “watched him again and again prevent proper regulations from being put in place.” Taylor said that she warned environmental officials that “our waters would be at risk if Reeder was in charge. That has happened.”
In the 17 years she has been with CWFNC, Taylor said the organization depended on Rudo and other state toxicologists for their scientific findings on drinking water wells. More than 3 million people in North Carolina depend on well water, the fourth-highest number in the U.S. However, only about 200,000 existing wells have been tested for contaminants since 2000. Newly constructed private wells must be tested within 30 days of completion, but no subsequent routine tests are required.
McCrory was not at the governor’s mansion during the protest. He was attending a ribbon-cutting for a highway in Fayetteville, where, when asked by reporters about the controversy, he characterized it as a “disagreement among scientists.”
However, the dissent is not between scientists. Williams is a former obstetrician/gynecologist. Reeder is a former environmental engineer and a Marine. Rudo and Davies, however, are recognized scientists in their respective fields.
Attorneys, activists and low-income communities often called on Rudo for his expertise, whether by testifying in court or by offering scientific advice about test results.
In 2015, Rudo visited the home of Deborah Graham, who lives near the Buck plant in Salisbury. She was one of hundreds of North Carolinians who received do-not drink orders — the same orders that were later rescinded to allow for higher levels of Chromium 6 and vanadium in well water.. “He explained the water test results and the CAMA law” — the coal ash management legislation that set a stricter regulatory standard for those contaminants. “He told us he would not give our water to a dog to drink.”
“Randall Williams knowingly adopted Duke Energy’s s view that the state was being too cautious,” Graham said. “Wow can you be too cautious when you’re dealing with public health? I asked that he resign or be fired. He knowingly put my and your health at risk.”