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NC's State Epidemiologist Resigns Citing 'Misleading' Info From McCrory Administration

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North Carolina Department of Heath and Human Services

You normally don’t hear much about North Carolina’s state epidemiologist.

But it’s not every day that a scientist sends out a scathing letter of resignation.

That’s just what Dr. Megan Davies did late Tuesday night, citing what she sees as McCory administration officials misleading the public about whether or not well water near unlined coal ash ponds is safe to drink. 

Dr. Megan Davies had served as North Carolina’s top epidemiologist for the past seven years, staying out of the spotlight.

Then Tuesday, two top McCrory administration officials published an editorial attacking the credibility of state toxicologist Dr. Ken Rudo – and his claims that politics, not science was behind the reversal of a state do-not-drink order for well water near unlined coal ash ponds.

The editorial portrayed Rudo as a rogue scientist with questionable findings.

Davies told WUNC that just isn’t the case.

"What outraged me in that editorial is that two people working in government who I have interacted with extensively, and I know that they know the process we went through, those two people sent out a document that conveyed that a lone scientist was behaving independently on his own whim when people’s health and lives were affected by those recommendations."

Her resignation letter was much more biting. “Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public.” Adding, “I cannot work for a department and an administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

Rudo’s claims were made in a sworn deposition, one Duke Energy has tried to keep sealed. He also stated Governor McCrory was directly involved in the reversal of the do-not-drink order, taking part in the meeting over the phone. In return, the McCrory administration has been more than open in its criticism of Rudo.

Here’s McCrory’s Chief of Staff, Thomas Stith, in a surprise late night press conference earlier this month.

"We’re not going to stand by idly while individuals makes false statements and lies under oath."

Now it’s relatively easy to attack the views of a single scientist. But adding Dr. Davies resignation to the mix makes it much more difficult for the McCrory administration, especially given her reputation among the top epidemiologists in other states.  

"She has an outstanding reputation among her colleagues," says Dr. Jeffery Engel, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. He also has served as North Carolina’s top epidemiologist. In fact, he's the one who hired Dr. Davies. 

The original do-not-drink order was issued because of elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. It’s a compound that can occur naturally – but is most commonly created by human activity. It is known to be present in coal ash.

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Credit Catawba Riverkeeper
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Catawba Riverkeeper
Map of the unlined coal ash storage ponds at the Allen Steam Plant.

But while hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer, what level of exposure is safe is still in question says Engel.

"You can't go out in the population and say X number of people have developed cancer because they were ingesting well water with those chemicals in it."

Because the link can be hard to establish. Unlike, say, a salmonella outbreak which could easily be traced back to a restaurant.

Still North Carolina scientists – including Dr. Davies, Dr. Rudo and others studied hexavalent chromium exposure and set a state limit. That was the basis of the original do-not-drink order. Dr. Engel say’s that’s normally enough for a state’s health department. They trust their staff.

In her resignation letter Dr. Davies says this was not the case. And the level of hexavalent chromium in the effected wells is still the same says Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.

"The data has very clearly shown wells near unlined coal ash ponds had orders of magnitude of more hexavalent chromium than what is calculated to be safe under North Carolina law and what is typically seen in municipal treated drinking water utilities."

But the standard of exposure deemed safe by the state has changed. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has chosen to ignore the state’s own standard and go with a much older and more generous standard established by the federal government. 

Speaking Thursday afternoon, Governor Pat McCrory defended the move by saying it’s just a disagreement among scientists. This was recorded by WRAL.

"We’re providing all the information necessary to ensure that we have safe drinking water. And the public knows exactly what the value of that drinking water is, especially as it relates to the federal standard which President Obama supports and his administration supports," McCrory said. 

It was an odd moment where Governor McCory decided it was best to agree with President Obama.

For some, this is just a he-said-she-said story, with both sides accusing the other of twisting science and lying to the public.

But for Amy Brown, it’s about much more. 

"I live next to Duke Energy’s Allen steam station right here in Belmont, North Carolina."

She, her husband, and her two young sons live less than 1,000 feet from an unlined Duke Energy coal ash pond. They rely on a well for their water. At least they did until a little over a year ago – when they, their neighbors and hundreds of others in similar situations around the state received a letter from state officials saying the water in their wells was contaminated and was unsafe to drink. Since that time the Browns have been living one bottle of water at a time.

"As for cooking, every single meal is prepared with a bottle of water. When you brush your teeth you use bottled water," Brown explained. 

That water is paid for by Duke. Delivered every two weeks. Despite the fact the company and now the state say the well water is perfectly safe. Duke is just a good neighbor a spokeswoman told WFAE.

But that bottled water only goes so far says Brown.

"My four year old son does not know what its like to enjoy a long playful bubble bath. How sad is that?"

Bottled water, contaminated taps, distrust of state government, for Amy Brown there’s a simple comparison.

"We are a Flint, North Carolina. I know there are differences there and I don’t take away from Flint in any way, shape or form, but we do have things that are similar. And the corruption is one of them."

Riverkeeper Sam Perkins takes that comparison a step further.

"Imagine if in Flint, Michigan, we were also hearing that in the process of finding high levels of lead, the process was not just to ignore the problem but to try to find the highest, oldest, lead standard possible and cite that for a reason the water was safe."

That’s just what Sam Perkins believes North Carolina officials did.

WFAE Reporters Lisa Worf and Michael Tomsic contributed to this report.