I-Team: A political war of words over well-water safety

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How safe is this water?

Recently released court documents suggest Gov. Pat McCrory's office was instrumental in a change to a public advisory about the safety of well water around Duke Energy coal ash ponds.

In early April 2015, state scientists at the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services had agreed to the wording of 118 "do not drink" letters slated to be sent out to homeowners with contaminated well water.

But after that consensus was reached and while state toxicologist Ken Rudo was on vacation, the letters changed; and, until now, we didn't know why.

READ ALL ABC11'S REPORTS ON COAL ASH

"We thought the change came from DEQ," Rudo told ABC11. "When I read it was the Governor's office that changed the wording in our HREs (Health Risk Assessments), I was stunned."

Newly released court testimony from Kendra Gerlach, Communications Director at DHHS, indicates that when Rudo was on vacation, a fax came into the agency from the Governor's communications office requiring a change in the wording of those 118 letters that played down the risk of the toxic chemicals in the water.

Read the deposition of Kendra Gerlach (.pdf)

The Governor's communications chief, Josh Ellis, wrote ABC11 a short email to our inquiry about the Governor's staff overruling state scientists that said "The language was something that was previously agreed upon by the secretaries of DHHS and DEQ."

But that opens more questions than it closes.

Rudo had been called in to the Capitol building for a meeting with Ellis, Gerlach, and, for a few minutes, the Governor by phone, just before his vacation to go over the wording of the "do not drink" letters.

Rudo tells ABC11 that when he left the meeting, everyone was in agreement about what the letters would say. Two weeks later, he returned to work to find the letters had been sent out with changes he specifically objected to.

Read the deposition of Ken Rudo (.pdf)

"They knew I would have a problem with it," Rudo said in his court deposition. "So it was done while I was gone."

Rudo said the change served mainly to confuse. "It was almost like saying, 'Don't drink the water, but don't worry about it," he said. "It was just amazingly misleading and dishonest language."

Rudo offered this full statement after Gerlach's deposition was released:

"When I read in Kendra's deposition that she said it was the Governor's office that changed the wording in our HREs (Health Risk Assessments), I was stunned. To me, the HRE is a science-based health risk assessment of people's drinking water. If it was Josh Ellis who, as a press secretary is the mouthpiece of Governor McCrory, who changed the wording, it is inappropriate. Ellis is not a toxicologist. He is not an epidemiologist. He is not an industrial hygienist. He is not a science-based health risk assessor. So you have a press secretary doing scientific health risk assessments and that's not right."

The court documents shed light on a question state Democrats have been asking for months, sending out this open records request to learn more about the April meeting between Gerlach, Ellis and Rudo.

"This is the latest proof that Gov McCrory, instead of saying 'The scientists recommend do-not-drink orders,' his office interfered with that and now we know it's true," said Dave Miranda, communications director for the NC Democratic Party. "Now we have his own employee saying the Governor's office overruled what the scientists said."

After this story aired, Kendra Gerlach and Josh Ellis called ABC11 and offered a different account. Gerlach provided a series of emails that back up the statement offered by both her and Ellis: that the secretaries of DHHS and DEQ had decided on the language of the do-not-drink letters before Rudo's objection in early April.

One email shows Rudo had gotten clear direction from his boss, Dr. Mina Shehee, in March that the language must be incorporated in the Health Risk Evaluation.

The emails and a summary were provided by staff at DEQ. You can read them below.

Read a timeline and summary of the emails between DHHS, DEQ officials here (.pdf)

Read the full emails here (.pdf)

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