Earlier this week Greenpeace reported how Duke Energy lobbyists thwarted the federal EPA from regulating toxic coal ash in a way that could have prevented Duke’s Dan River spill. As that crisis continues unfolding, North Carolina state politicians and regulators will have a big role in determining what happened, how to clean up the mess, who will pay for it, and how Duke should be punished. Given all that, we wanted to shine a light on how Duke Energy has owned and controlled those very regulators and politicians for years as well.
If you were among the thousands of people who wrote to protest a very recent settlement between North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) with Duke Energy, you know this story well. If not, that settlement is a useful place to start. While a host of independent organizations had been working for years to hold Duke accountable in court for coal ash contamination of lakes and rivers around the state, DENR filed its own lawsuit against Duke – it seemed for a hopeful instant that the state’s environmental regulators were finally beginning to take seriously their charter to protect the environment.
DENR had no such intention; soon it became clear that the state’s suit proved to be political theater. Instead of holding Duke accountable, DENR settled with the energy giant for a measly $99,000. Duke’s market capitalization is $50 billion – fifty thousand times that. DENR may as well have fined them a buck fifty. Financial penalties aside, DENR could have at least pushed for a settlement that required Duke to clean up its ash dumps like the ones at Dan River – instead it only asked for Duke to conduct some studies.
It was an egregious sleight of hand by DENR, but anybody who was surprised by the move—and few Tarheels were—hadn’t really been paying attention. Ever since Pat McCrory became governor, DENR has made economic growth its primary mission, taking frequent opportunities to thumb its nose at the EPA and even the basic concept of environmental regulation. Just last month, DENR sided with polluters and sued the EPA over new regulations that would limit air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots back to Duke on that one either.
DENR is charged with protecting people and ecosystems from the likes of Duke Energy. Instead it has proven to be on Duke’s team, running interference for the energy giant any time it needs a hand. All of this stems from Duke’s ace in the hole in North Carolina politics, and that’s McCrory, a once and forever Duke Energy man, the largest single recipient of Duke’s political funding largesse, and DENR’s boss. Before entering politics, McCrory worked for Duke for 28 years and is documented to possess untold wealth in Duke stock (from which, somehow, he has not been required to divest.) DENR’s are not the only Duke-friendly orders coming from McCrory. The Governor has appointed a number of members of the state’s utility commission, despite persistent calls from watchdog groups that he recuse himself based on obvious conflicts of interest. Instead, he supported Senate Bill 10, which granted him unmitigated authority to stack the state’s utility commission with his and Duke’s cronies.
McCrory crowed on Thursday, to environmental advocates disbelief:
“My administration was the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds. We have been moving on this issue since the beginning of my term and will continue to do so.”
That’s an audacious claim given that the McCrory administration’s lawsuit was pure Kabuki theater – a political ploy designed to end in a settlement that made the term “wrist slap” seem like capital punishment. But under the hot lights of the national media, suddenly McCrory fashioned his administration – probably the most polluter-friendly one that North Carolina has ever seen – into a public watchdog.
Duke owns the North Carolina Legislature as much as it does the executive branch. Senate Bill 612, passed in 2013, was a power grab by North Carolina’s state politicians – and their fiscal sponsors at Duke – to make it harder for local towns and cities to protect themselves from pollution.
The law contained a ‘boundary loophole’ allowing polluters like Duke to create even bigger toxic coal ash piles at power plants, endangering neighboring communities and threatening nearby rivers, lakes and drinking water supplies with toxic run-off. SB 612 also responded to anti-fracking bills passed by individual North Carolina municipalities by declaring invalid any local environmental standards that were more stringent than the state’s. In other words, if your town decided it didn’t want harmful natural resource extraction to occur within its limits, too bad.
The egregiousness of these abuses is only made worse by the fact that Duke Energy consistently uses North Carolinians’ money for improper and disallowed expenses, like air travel and lavish dinners for executives. To top it off, the state has permitted Duke to hike rates on North Carolinians. With so many people in rough economic straits, Duke Energy’s predatory practices have only ramped up.
After abusing the state of North Carolina so severely, how could anyone take Duke’s word about this spill at face value? Days after the spill, Duke’s reporting of water quality was still being used by the city of Danville to reassure its residents.
Duke still hasn’t updated its initial estimate of the size of the spill, originally reported as a range between 50,000 and 82,000 tons, even though we know that it took Duke days to stop the leak.
As the spill comes under control and attention turns toward remediation and punishment, people shouldn’t trust Duke to tell the truth about what’s happening. Given Duke’s history of buying, influencing and downright controlling the very politicians who are supposed to regulate it in North Carolina, we shouldn’t trust those politicians to make sure Duke tells the truth either.
North Carolina residents should hold every Duke claim up to intense skepticism, and keep their eyes open for the politicians who are doing Duke’s bidding. With state elections a few months away in North Carolina, politicians should have to reveal whether they will continue to let Duke get away with poisoning the state for their own profit. If so, they could face some tough reelection bids come November.
If you want to delve deeper, Rhiannon Fionn has tirelessly documented coal ash news, especially when it comes to Duke Energy and North Carolina, at the blog Coal Ash Chronicles. Sue Sturgis’s reporting on Duke’s influence in North Carolina politics at the Institute of Southern Studies is an invaluable resource for anybody interested in delving deeper into Duke’s influence peddling.