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NC official’s resignation highlights clash in politics, public-health policy

Saheli August 14, 2016 Health Comments Off on NC official’s resignation highlights clash in politics, public-health policy

The character attack on a state toxicologist by environment and health administrators last week and the abrupt resignation submitted a day later in protest by one of the toxicologist’s managers shed more light on the volatile mix of politics and public-health policy now in play at the highest levels of North Carolina’s government.

Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and Randall Williams, the deputy secretary for health services at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, portrayed toxicologist Ken Rudo, as a rogue scientist in an editorial sent to newspapers statewide.

In her resignation letter, Megan Davies, the epidemiology section chief and state epidemiologist, said Reeder and Williams had presented a “false narrative.”

Their apparent goal was to paint Rudo as the root cause of the deep anxiety expressed over the past few months by well owners near Duke Energy coal ash pits. Williams and Reeder sanctioned a decision in March to reverse a warning made in early 2015 by state health experts, including Rudo, to the well owners about the dangers of their contaminated water.

State health experts advised well owners not to drink the water; Reeder and Williams told most of them a year later that the water was fine to drink.

Last week, state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who is the co-chairman of the legislative Environmental Review Commission, said that the public feud raises concerns about the decisions being made about coal ash by Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

“While I’m not convinced the health alerts should have been issued in the first place, the retraction of those health alerts only contributed to public confusion about water pollution caused by coal ash.

“Now this very public spat between the McCrory Administration and Rudo and Davies only raises more doubts as to whether the Administration is basing its decisions about coal ash on science rather than politics,” McGrady said.

Differing standards

Reeder and Williams based the decision to lift the warning on a different measuring stick.

For one of the more dangerous contaminants detected in the wells, a carcinogen known as hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, state health experts based their warning on a detection threshold of 0.07 parts per billion, or ppb, a threshold that they had calculated and which was confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Reeder and Williams rely on a federal standard of 100 ppb — evaluated by state health experts as unacceptable.

The state health experts’ interim threshold of 0.07 ppb would allow for a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1 million.

The federal standard being applied by Reeder and Williams would allow a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 700.

When the warning was lifted in March, well owners wanted to know whether the people who issued the warning a year earlier had backed the reversal. Staff members who specialize in public relations at the environmental and health departments would not specify.

DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre told the Journal as much in March.

“It is important to understand it was not one person who created the original levels for usage recommendations, nor was it one person who decided to update recommendations. This was a Department decision made after consulting with multiple experts across two state agencies. It would be highly inappropriate to characterize these decisions as those of any one person.

“The decision to update the original usage recommendations came after learning new information over a period of time,” she said.

‘Unethical … illegal’

That DHHS message issued in March categorically contrasts with the editorial issued by Reeder and Williams last week attacking Rudo.

Before the editorial was issued, McCrory and his administration had been put on the defensive after testimony given by Rudo under oath during a deposition related to coal-ash litigation became available to the public. During the deposition, Rudo said the reversal of the do-not-drink advisory was “unethical and possibly illegal.”

Taking aim at Rudo, Reeder and Williams issued their editorial less than two weeks later, referring to him as an inconsistent scientist who disagrees with other scientists — and suggesting that the threshold for screening chromium-6 was solely his doing. As an example, they said, “For Chromium 6, Rudo’s analysis is out of step with the federal government and 49 other states.” The overriding message: The concerns of well owners were exacerbated by Rudo, a rogue scientist.

A day later, Davies resigned.

In her resignation letter, addressed to Richard Brazer, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and Daniel Staley, the director of the Division of Public Health, Davies put into clear terms how the 0.07 threshold was calculated.

Two toxicologists at Reeder’s environmental department calculated the health screening level, or threshold, Davies said, based on the Coal Ash Management Act and state groundwater quality rules. Then two toxicologists, including Rudo, at the health department reviewed the health screening level, and they agreed with it. In addition, she said, the do-not-drink advisory was issued after health department leadership had been briefed, and with the consent of former DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos.

Williams and Brazer were fully briefed in August 2015, she said.

“Upon reading the editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public,” Davies said.

Calls for probe

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, has called for an independent investigation — possibly by the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the state Ethics Commission, she said. The state Attorney General’s Office is an unlikely candidate since Roy Cooper, the attorney general, is running against McCrory for the gubernatorial seat.

“What troubles me the most is that the residents were told it was safe for them to drink the water over the objections of a state toxicologist,” Harrison said.

Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League backs the idea of an investigation, saying in part that the public deserves to know what happened behind the scenes, to what extent politically appointed officials made decisions on public health and whether those decisions were made to protect Duke Energy.

“You have to wonder: If the administration went ahead with this, what else is happening?” said Vick. “The scientists are on one side of the argument. I don’t see any scientists on the other side.”

Well owners and conservation advocates affiliated with the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash organized a protest in Raleigh on Thursday.

“We’ve worked with communities with a wide range of well contamination problems since at least 2003,” Hope Taylor, the executive director of the Clean Water for North Carolina, said in an email, “and we know how critical the health advisories are to give well users a chance to protect themselves.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, as one of 30 unregulated contaminants that it is collecting data on to determine how best to regulate it. The federal threshold that the McCrory administration and Duke Energy promote does not apply to private wells — only to public water systems, and it refers to total chromium, not specifically to hexavalent chromium.

On the political front, the campaigns for Cooper and McCrory took shots at each other about well water safety.

“If Roy Cooper were to resign, no one would know the difference. He ignored the coal ash problem for decades and even fought cleanup efforts as attorney general. Like on so many others issues, if Roy Cooper did his job as attorney general for the past 16 years, the entire coal ash issue could have been avoided,” said Ricky Diaz, McCrory’s campaign spokesman.

Ford Porter, Cooper’s campaign spokesman, focused on McCrory’s involvement.

“His own scientists are questioning both the safety of our drinking water and the integrity of our public leaders. These are very serious allegations which cannot be ignored or dismissed with more finger pointing. The Governor should immediately fire any staff member that has participated in efforts to mislead the public or hide information, and if the sworn testimony about his involvement is true, Governor McCrory should resign as well,” Porter said.
[Source: Wistom salem journal]

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