There is nothing more effective to change public policy than public outcry. Duke Energy is learning this truism the hard way — although it should have been aware of it years ago. Duke Energy has 32 coal ash ponds in 14 locations statewide. None of these are lined to prevent seepage of toxic coal ash water into ground water or nearby, canals, streams or rivers.
On Feb. 2, Duke Energy allowed 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge to be released into the Dan River. In March, Duke Energy was caught red-handed pumping 61,000 gallons of coal ash toxins from storage ponds into canals that empty into the Cape Fear River above Fayetteville. This kind of outrageous disregard for the purity and safety of our state’s water has been demonstrated by Duke Energy time and again and it is because of the company’s well-developed political connections and expensive but effective lobbying that it was overlooked.
Public outcry has now been heard and Duke Energy’s immunity to our state’s laws regarding pollution may be over. The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR)-imposed $99,111 fine for unlawful maintenance of storage ponds and dumping was appealed to an appropriate court, by DENR attorneys, for retraction. DENR lawyers realized that they had crossed the line, that the wrist-slap citation and fine to Duke Energy was far too lenient and the public was just not going to stand for it. The seriousness of the Dan River spill has been widely but not under-publicized. The Dan will be polluted not for weeks or months but likely for years.
How the subject and issue of Duke Energy’s coal ash storage arrived at the current condition is a long story. Some of it could be explained by observing that coal ash is the residue of burning coal and burning coal is what Duke Energy does to provide our state’s businesses and residents with electricity. The state agency charged with the responsibility of policing environmentally harmful activities is the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Simply put, that state agency did not do its job as it pertains to Duke Energy.
The election of Pat McCrory to the governor’s office exacerbated an already out-of-control situation due to lack of adequate attention by Democratic governor appointees to head the agency. When McCrory appointed long-time crony, John Skvarla, to head DENR, there was no hiding the fact that DENR was going to be run by a new sheriff with new policies handed down by Gov. McCrory. As a 29-year former employee of Duke Energy and recipient of multi-million dollar campaign contributions from the utility, McCrory knew where his bread was buttered. “Be kind to business and business will be kind to you,” was his guiding principle and light. Upon appointment,Skvarla announced that his agency was to be “business-friendly.” That policy was laid out by Skvarla’s lieutenants as “Get on board with a policy of helping business overcome environmental regulations or get your desks emptied out.” Some did — including a very vocal lead staffer, Amy Adams, who now works for the environmental organization Appalachian Voice.
So, Duke Energy continued to operate without restraints. It had its man in the governor’s mansion. Under the McCrory administration, Duke Energy continued (without concerns of interference by DENR) to pollute and operate coal ash facilities without required permits or adequate attendance or maintenance to those facilities. But when the Dan River coal ash pond let go, even a ham-fisted politician such as McCrory recognized that this kind of irresponsible behavior, which demonstrates utter disregard for our state’s environment, is bad for reelection probabilities. DENR has received revised marching orders, no doubt something along the lines of “Continue to be business friendly but make it look as if the agency is really trying to do its job.” DENR could actually do that but it would require putting a few teeth into their enforcement efforts. It may struggle with this until it gets leadership that puts the well-being of the state’s natural resources above the best interests of big utilities and massive hog farms. We shall see, but one thing is without a doubt — John Skvarla will not be heading North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resource much longer if McCrory has any ambitions of serving a second term.
Photo: On Feb. 2, Duke Energy allowed 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge to be released into the Dan River.