State toxicologist assailed by Gov. McCrory has lengthy record of research and public service

By: - August 4, 2016 5:30 am

State toxicologist Ken Rudo (Photo: Canary Coalition)

He’s testified against Dow Chemical. He’s faced down ExxonMobil. His testimony helped two farmworkers whose baby was born without arms or legs reach a settlement with Ag-Mart over pesticide exposure.

In comparison, Governor Pat McCrory could be described as a relative small fry in some respects.

Ken Rudo, the state’s toxicologist, has been under attack by McCrory, who, earlier this week, tried to discredit him. At a last-minute, late-night press conference, McCrory, through a spokesman, alleged Rudo had lied under oath about the governor’s involvement in misleading private well owners about coal ash contamination in their drinking water.

But an interview with a member of Rudo’s Ph.D. committee, as well as a review of scientific papers, federal and state court cases and expert testimony, all reveal that Rudo’s bona fides are unassailable. (Some academics and scientists contacted for this article could not speak to NCPW because of their institutions’ media policies.) NCPW found that, until he crossed swords with the McCrory administration, Rudo has never been accused of lying under oath or fabricating data.

I’ve always found him to be an honest and ethical scientist,” said Robert Smart, a distinguished professor in N.C. State’s Department of Biological Sciences and Toxicology Program. Smart served on Rudo’s Ph.D committee.

Rudo’s research has been peer-reviewed, Smart said, and “is constantly being scrutinized. There are a lot of eyeballs on it.”

Rudo graduated from N.C. State in 1989 with a doctorate in toxicology. Shortly afterward, he was hired at the state Division of Public Health, where he has been ever since.

However, Rudo’s scientific findings and conclusions — many of which have significant environmental justice implications — have often collided with state regulators. Within a year of joining state government, Rudo uncovered significant levels of cancer-causing arsenic, cadmium, and chromium in dust accumulating next to kilns and smokestacks owned by Carolina Solite, an incinerator in Stanly County. Previous monitoring by state environmental officials showed no contamination or illegal emissions.

Durham-based journalist Barry Yeoman later reported that regulators in charge of clean air and water, particularly from the Mooresville regional office, were resistant to the notion that the cancer threat required swift and serious action. … To the health experts, that was perplexing. ‘I never understood why it was so difficult to convince them something had to be done,’ Rudo was quoted as saying. We had the data.”

By the mid to late ’90s, Rudo’s scientific research on contamination from hog waste and gasoline additives was being quoted — although his advice was not always followed — by regulators and policymakers in other states, including Maine, Missouri and Minnesota. He disagreed with Wisconsin health officials in 1995, saying their conclusions over the widespread health effects of reformulated gasoline were “inaccurate.

The courts at times have been hostile to scientists, and Rudo has been no exception. He ran up against a formidable opponent in 2006, when Dow Chemical persuaded a federal judge to invoke what’s known as the “Daubert” rule. It is based on a Supreme Court decision that governs the admissibility of expert testimony.

The judge used the rule to exclude the opinions of three scientists, including Rudo, who had concluded that groundwater contamination at a Louisiana trailer park increased residents’ risk of cancer. The case was then dismissed.

But sometimes Rudo’s research prevailed. In 2009, he testified in a Veterans Administration case about the long-range health effects of Agent Orange. Rudo said that it was “more likely than not” that the dioxins produced by the defoliant caused Parkinson’s-like symptoms in a veteran. Ongoing studies confirmed Rudo’s conclusion. The VA now recognizes Parkinson’s disease as associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service.

In 2012, attorneys also called on Rudo to testify against Exxon and on behalf of plaintiffs representing 88 Maryland households. Those households’ groundwater had been contaminated by chemicals found in gasoline. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $147 million in damages, but a court of appeals significantly reduced the amount.

Also in 2012, Rudo and five co-authors, including state public health colleague Mina Shehee, published peer-reviewed research about the public health implications of arsenic in private drinking water wells. They tested 63,000 wells in North Carolina and found that more than 7,700 contained detectable amounts of the cancer-causing chemical. Nearly 1,500 wells exceeded the EPA’s drinking water standard. Stanly and Union Counties are in the “slate belt,” where Rudo detected high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water wells. These households are at increased risk, the study found, and should be closely monitored.

There have been instances in which Rudo and state environmental officials did work together to protect the public health. Under the leadership of Bill Holman, then the Secretary for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in 1993 Rudo helped several Gaston County residents get bottled water after their wells tested extremely high for benzene, a cancer-causing compound.

The Gaston County situation presents a stark contrast from the recent coal ash case. In the comment section of a form sent to well owners in Gaston County, Rudo wrote: “Please do not use water for ANY purposes as any exposure may pose a significantly increased health and cancer risk over time. DO NOT USE THIS WATER!”

Residents had to wait no more than 72 days for the state to provide alternate water sources, including bottled water and then a permanent well filter, according to court documents. In contrast, well owners in the coal ash contamination case may have to wait until 2018 to receive permanent water replacement.

The McCrory administration and Republican lawmakers have often denied sound science on environmental issues. For example, former DEQ Secretary John Skvarla theorized that oil is a renewable energy source and lawmakers have passed sea-level legislation that ignores the most recent science about climate change.

This attitude has made it difficult for scientists to do their jobs. “There are so many problems with coal ash in the state. These are huge issues,” Smart said of the recent controversy. “Being a state toxicologist in this environment would be challenging. And I think this is a manifestation of that.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.