North Carolina’s Top Epidemiologist Quits Over Coal Ash Controversy

Duke Energy coal fired plants

North Carolina’s government opened for business this week short of one high-profile staffer: a scientist central to the long-running firestorm involving state regulation of coal ash contamination. 

Megan Davies, the top epidemiologist at the state’s Health and Human Services Department, tendered her resignation in recent days after one of her bosses publicly criticized a lower-level toxicologist.

That toxicologist, Ken Rudo, had said the government whitewashed contamination risk in drinking water wells located near Duke Energy coal ash storage ponds.

Then Randall Williams, the state HHS Department deputy secretary, alongside a top state Environmental Quality Department official, launched an offensive. An editorial, posted last week on a government webpage, called Rudo “unprofessional,” labeling his cautions a “disservice.” 

The editorial also took aim at the press. “Both media and scientists should also be expected to recognize facts,” the memo said.

The conflict revolves around appropriate drinking water levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen found in coal ash. The Environmental Protection Agency says standard chromium is permitted at 100 parts per billion, the threshold promoted by Williams.

But Rudo urged a far more restrictive permissible level.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has backed Rudo’s 0.07 ppb advisory, the Winston-Salem Journal said in an exposé yesterday.

The editorial assault proved too much for Davies.

“I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” Davies wrote Aug. 10, referring to the editorial. “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public. Resigning from this job that I love is a terrible loss to me professionally and personally.”

Residents rallied outside the executive mansion of Gov. Pat McCrory (R) last Thursday, and they don’t plan to take their foot off the pedal, Katie Hicks, associate director of Clean Water for North Carolina, told Bloomberg BNA today.

The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, which includes Clean Water for North Carolina, sponsored the rally.

“I hate to think it but maybe there is a silver lining here in that people are seeing Davies take a principled stand against misleading the public,” Hicks said. “But it remains to be seen if top administration officials will back down with their attacks against state scientists.”

“This issue isn’t going away anytime soon,” she said.  

McCrory worked for the power behemoth for nearly three decades.

For now, accusations of deception appear to be the centerpiece of arguments on both sides of the debate.