CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The Catawba Riverkeeper and Greenpeace are filing a public records request around the controversy over Duke Energy coal ash plants.
Riverkeeper Sam Perkins was joined by residents who claim their well water is contaminated by coal ash, along with activists from Greenpeace, at the Government Center Friday morning. The group announced it was filing a public records request for documents from the governor's office.
The announcement comes after Governor Pat McCrory's chief of staff issued a statement Tuesday following news reports about leaked testimony by Health and Human Services employee, Ken Rudo.
Toxicologist Ken Rudo testified last month during a deposition as part of a lawsuit against Duke Energy, filed by environmental advocates seeking to shut down the company's coal ash ponds.
The Associated Press obtained a full copy of the 220-page deposition.
Rudo's boss, state public health director Dr. Randall Williams, in March reversed earlier warnings that had told the affected residents not to drink their water. The water is contaminated with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium at levels many times higher than Rudo had determined is safe.
"The state health director's job is to protect public health," testified Rudo, who has been the state's toxicologist for nearly 30 years. "And in this specific instance, the opposite occurred. He knowingly told people that their water was safe when we knew it wasn't."
Chromium is a metallic element that occurs naturally in the environment but can also be produced by industrial activity. Its most toxic form — hexavalent chromium or chromium-6 — is known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is likely to be carcinogenic when ingested.
As part of his deposition, Rudo said hexavalent chromium would cause an increased lifetime risk of causing tumors in those who drink it, especially for pregnant women, infants and children under age of 12.
Excerpts from Rudo's deposition, claim that McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee, was involved with his administration's attempts to challenge the advisory that Rudo and other state health experts had drafted.
Rudo says he was also called back to speak to McCrory, who he spoke with by phone, and then met with McCrory's communications director and the director of communications at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
He says there were concerns about what was being told to people in the do-not-drink advisory, which were given to neighbors in June 2015.
The governor's office disputed Rudo's claims and Tuesday evening held a press conference to say he'd lied under oath.
"We don't know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting as he suggests," said chief of staff Thomas Stith. "The fact is that the state sent homeowners near coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about their drinking water and thanks to the McCrory administration's efforts, well owners are being hooked up to municipal water supplies at Duke Energy's expense."
The group gathered Friday morning said the governor's office has "absolutely no evidence backing up their claim" that Rudo lied. They called the governor's office press conference the "governor's latest attempt to sweep his former employer's coal ash pollution under the rug."
"Ken Rudo is one of the few people who has been looking out for families affected by Duke Energy's coal ash pollution, and Gov. McCrory is trying to throw him under the bus," said Belmont resident Amy Brown, who has been living off bottled water for over a year. "It's not right for Gov. McCrory to call Dr. Rudo a liar, and we demand answers about this latest coal ash coverup."
Greenpeace field organizer Michael Zytkow said the group filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking messages, calendar entries, social media messages, handwritten notes and phone records from Governor McCrory and his communications director Josh Ellis.
"The ultimate goal is to find out what happened. We have multiple stories here. We have Dr. Ken Rudo's sworn deposition and we have people within the McCrory administration who are outright calling him a liar," Zytkow said. "So the public deserves a right to know, get to the bottom of this."
Brown is a mother of two who lives in Belmont. She said she received a call from Dr. Rudo, a year ago, explaining why she shouldn't drink or cook with her well water.
"While the leaders of this state want you to believe that the state toxicologist with almost 30 years' experience would lie under oath, I pose this question to you. Why would he lie?" she asked. "Now ask yourself why would they lie? This is why we support Dr. Ken Rudo. We didn't ask for this nightmare and Dr. Rudo certainly didn't deserve this from the very state that he worked to protect for almost 30 years. If those records are not released then my water isn't the only thing dirty. Governor McCrory hands will be."
Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for McCrory's re-election campaign, called this "The Left's Latest Conspiracy Theory."
"Even Governor Jim Hunt's administration had to apologize for the bureaucrat Ken Rudo in the past, and he has a history of lying and going after scientists with whom he personally disagreed," Diaz said. "The fact is that while Roy Cooper and previous administrations ignored the coal ash problem for decades, fought cleanup efforts and even supported policies which made it harder to prevent coal ash spills, Governor McCrory is addressing the problem once and for all. And thanks to the McCrory administration's efforts, residents near coal ash sites will be connected to municipal water supplies at Duke Energy's expense."
The press release also included, what the McCrory campaign called, the "7 inconvenient truths about the left's latest conspiracy theory when it comes to coal ash."
- According to the Associated Press, the Hunt administration had to publicly apologize for Rudo's campaign against a scientist with whom he disagreed.
- Governor McCrory didn't take part in or call a meeting or call like Ken Rudo claimed under oath.
- Thanks to the McCrory administration, homeowners near coal ash ponds will get drinking water supplies at Duke Energy's expense.
- The state sent homeowners near coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about their drinking water
- Other state experts disagreed with Rudo, who is only one of dozens of scientists in state government.
- According to the Associated Press, Ken Rudo has a history of making false claims and using his position as a state scientist to go after other scientists with whom he disagrees.
- Governor McCrory's administration has been the toughest on coal ash, and public drinking water quality has improved across the state.
Rudo determined water that contained more than .07ppb of hexavalent chromium was unsafe to drink.
Recent tests conducted by On Your Side Investigates of water wells owned by neighbors who live a half-mile or more away from the Cliffside Steam Station in western Cleveland County found two thirds of the wells tested to have hexavalent chromium levels exceeding .07ppb. One well contained more than nine times that amount.
Officials with Duke Energy, the company that owns the power facilities and maintains the coal ash ponds, deny coal ash is the cause behind any elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in nearby wells.
"I can say for certain the ash basins around the state are not affecting people's wells," Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said in a recent interview with On Your Side Investigates.
"You're saying that coal ash contaminants have nothing to do with the coal ash a mile down the road?" On Your Side Investigates asked. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying," Culbert replied
After letters were sent out, rescinding the do not drink advisory, a top regulator with North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality told On Your Side Investigates that the wells contained the same levels of hexavalent chromium as public water supplies around the state. An analysis of water data for public water systems across the state found that claim to be false.
Later in the portions of Rudo's deposition, he said officials at DEQ - which, at the time, was called DENR - pushed to insert language into a health risk evaluation form regarding coal ash contaminants that went out while he was on vacation.
Friday, Culbert told WBTV "since the groups continue to talk about 'contaminated' wells, it'd be great if you could remind folks that even following extensive study by outside experts, we continue to see no indication that ash basins have affected neighbors' wells."