With a federal investigation under way, Duke Energy might have thought the worst was over following its coal ash spill at Dan River plant. But the past seven days have only added to Duke’s mess and, in the process, increased suspicion around the company’s environmental regulators and Gov. McCrory, who had worked for Duke for 28 years.
By Monday, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Resources (DENR) issued stormwater drainage violations for 6 of Duke’s coal ash dumps, including Dan River, where the spill occurred.
Two days later, DENR revealed that Duke had incorrectly claimed that Dan River was the only dump to use drain pipes made from weaker metal, rather than stronger concrete. In fact, Duke uses metal pipes at eight other coal ash dumps. The Dan River spill started when coal ash broke through a metal drainage pipe running under the dump.
Following DENR’s announcement, the agency expanded its inspections of Duke’s dumps. The agency will now use video cameras to check for breaks in pipes. It has asked Duke to produce materials on the dumps’ engineering and emergency plans. And just yesterday, DENR ordered Duke to fix dams at two coal ash dumps.
But DENR’s recent actions belie its larger failings as a regulator. As a result, Duke is not the only entity facing a credibility issue – DENR (and Gov. McCrory) are too.
Duke’s own credibility is quickly evaporating. Between claiming its dumps were safe, attempting to push the cost of the spill onto customers, and failing to correctly disclose its number of vulnerable pipes, Duke has shown itself incapable of honoring the public’s trust.
Even before this week’s admission over pipes, a poll found that the majority of North Carolinians held an “unfavorable” view of Duke.
DENR’s credibility continues to collapse as well. DENR’s stormwater permit violations against Duke came only after the Associated Press filed a request to see the permit for the Dan River plant. It not only turned out that Dan River lacked a permit, but that the permits of other plants had languished on DENR’s to-do list since 2010.
DENR’s reactionary violations mark the second time the agency has waited until after the fact to address coal ash. Following the Dan River spill, DENR suspended a 2013 settlement with Duke for a mere $99,000 over leaks at two coal ash dumps (DENR may yet reinstate that settlement). Soon after, federal investigators launched an investigation into DENR and Duke, spurred by an AP report suggesting the settlement was an attempt by DENR to quash lawsuits brought by environmental groups.
And the scandal continues to create headaches for Gov. McCrory. On Friday, the New York Times reported massive suppression of DENR’s regulatory role following McCrory’s election. Under McCrory, DENR’s water protection budget was slashed, the agency’s regulatory approval commission was converted from a technical body into a unilaterally partisan one, and DENR supervisors were mandated to “focus on customer service” toward businesses rather than environmental protection.
Restoring public interest
Counteracting the failings of DENR and McCrory has been North Carolina’s Superior Court. Yesterday, a judge ruled that Duke must take “immediate action” to stop groundwater leaks at all coal ash dumps. DENR’s response to the ruling was limited to “carefully reviewing the court’s decision.”
North Carolina residents are also taking up the issue. On Wednesday, protestors garnered national press when they gathered outside Gov. McCrory’s home, chanting their demand that the governor “Clean up the ash! Clean up the ash! Clean up the ash!”
“…we call on this governor and this government on this day, this Ash Wednesday,” Reverend William Barber of North Carolina’s NAACP told protestors, “to see this coal ash spill as a call for us as a state and for them as leaders to repent and to the right thing: Clean up the ash.” Polling shows 93% of North Carolinians agree.
Will DENR and McCrory heed the calls of their constituents? The health and safety of millions of people living downstream of Duke’s toxic sludge dumps hang in the balance.
If DENR and McCrory continue their path of sacrificing North Carolina’s health and environment so that Duke can get what it wants, they may never be able to recover the public trust, already so badly bruised by this saga. North Carolinians, like all people, depend on their government to keep them safe. So far McCrory and DENR are failing. And if they don’t change that pattern soon, North Carolina voters will almost certainly find someone else to trust in 2016.