The latest revelations in court depositions about Gov. Pat McCrory’s role in weakening warnings about the safety of drinking water near leaking coal ash pits have prompted news headlines about a war of words.
But the sworn testimony in the case obtained recently by Lisa Sorg with N.C. Policy Watch does not reveal a disagreement between the McCrory administration and environmental groups or partisan opponents.
Instead the conflict has McCrory’s office — and even McCrory himself — on one side and a well-respected state toxicologist and a key political appointee of McCrory’s on the other.
As Sorg reported this week, DHHS Communications Director Kendra Gerlach testified under oath that she received a fax from “the Capitol building,” referring to the governor’s office, that included a “sentence to be inserted” in a letter to well water owners near a coal ash pit that downplayed the possible dangers from drinking the contaminated water.
McCrory’s staff has repeatedly claimed that the governor’s office had nothing to do with the final language in the warning letter, that it came from agency experts.
Gerlach’s testimony directly contradicts that claim and so does the testimony of toxicologist Ken Rudo who said under oath that he was called to a meeting with Gerlach and McCrory’s Communications Director Josh Ellis about the drinking water advisory and that McCrory was on the phone.
When Rudo’s allegations first came to light, McCrory’s Chief of Staff Thomas Stith held a rare late night news conference to allege that Rudo lied under oath about the meeting.
Stith later admitted in his own deposition that had hadn’t even read Rudo’s testimony when he held the news conference. That didn’t stop Stith or other top administration officials from repeatedly trying to discredit Rudo which ultimately prompted State Epidemiologist Megan Davies to resign in protest.
The revelations of McCrory’s involvement in the contaminated drinking water scandal come on the heels of his puzzling comments about his private dinner meeting with Duke Energy last year as the state was struggling with how to handle the company’s leaking coal ash pits and what to tell residents living near the sites to do about their drinking water.
The meeting was first reported by WRAL-TV and McCrory refused to answer questions about it. During a recent debate McCrory said the meeting was about his intentions to veto a bill creating a commission to oversee the cleanup of the coal ash sites.
But as WRAL reported last week, McCrory’s answer doesn’t make sense because there was no coal ash commission bill to veto at the time of the meeting. The N.C. Supreme Court was considering McCrory’s challenge to coal ash legislation passed in 2014 but didn’t issue its decision until January of this year and McCrory had no way to know at the time of the 2015 dinner that the General Assembly would pass another coal ash commission bill in the 2016 session.
The dates simply don’t add up—which means McCrory’s story could not be true and that we still don’t know what McCrory was talking to Duke Executives about at their private dinner last year when so many issues affecting the company were being considered by state agencies.
McCrory’s staff hasn’t been much help either, issuing vague and misleading denials about the private meeting and the recent revelations in sworn testimony by both his own political appointee and a state toxicologist.
This is not a war of words. This is the latest chapter in the disturbing saga of how McCrory deals with public safety issues that involve Duke Energy, where he worked for 28 years.
The public deserves transparency and clear honest answers about coal ash — and is getting neither from the governor.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.