A very important bill is sailing through the North Carolina Senate. Only four months following Duke’s massive coal ash spill at Dan River plant, S729 is the senate’s working answer to Duke’s coal ash problem. Whether the bill will contain all the necessary policies to solve that problem remains to be seen. On thing is certain: Duke’s corrupting influence isn’t helping.
Duke’s governmental investments
A quick rundown of S729. The bill is good in the sense that it puts deadlines on Duke as early as 2019 on transitioning away from coal ash dumps in their current form. The bill would clear out 4 dump sites, moving the ash to pits which would be lined along their basins so that contaminants would not seep into the groundwater.
But the bill has major weaknesses. The 10 other dump sites could be simply covered over with tarp and grass, leaving groundwater vulnerable to leaks from unlined basins. Illegal leaks of coal ash into local waterways could be legalized through the permit process. And NC ratepayers, not Duke, could end up paying for any costs. (For an explanation of why Duke can afford to take on the costs, see this report.)
All in all, S729 is a weak bill. What’s held it back? Start with NC Governor Pat McCrory, who proposed a similar version of the bill back in April.
McCrory’s plan called for a case-by-case clearing out of the ash, a far cry from the across-the-board removals needed. The proposal was similar to Duke’s, a fact that brings to mind McCrory’s 28 years as a Duke employee prior to assuming office. Duke has also invested handsomely in McCrory’s governorship. Its political action committee (PAC) donated 3 times the money to his campaign as it did to 5 other governors combined.
That S729 is so similar to McCrory’s plan should come as no surprise either. The senators who introduced the bill, Phil Berger and Tom Apodaca, have also received massive campaign funding from Duke. Duke’s PAC has donated $35,000 to Apodaca and $45,000 to Berger. Each senator received the state maximum of $8,000 from Duke in 2012.
Going clockwise from the upper left: NC Senator Tom Apodaca, Senator Phil Berger, NC Utilities Commission Chairman Ed Finley, and NC Governor Pat McCrory.
S729 hasn’t just been hampered by Duke’s cozy governmental relations. The bill has the potential to strengthen Duke’s favor.
Under S729, the coal ash pit closure process would start with NC’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which would rank Duke’s pits according to three levels of risk. Normally a state’s environmental department would serve as a natural place for such a process. Gov. McCrory’s DENR, however, has proven wanting to say the least.
DENR is under federal criminal investigation following revelations that it protected Duke’s coal ash dumps from lawsuits by environmental groups. The New York Times reported massive suppression of DENR’s regulatory role following McCrory’s ascendency to the governorship in 2013. And that same year, DENR settled with Duke for a corporate pittance of $99,000 over pollution from two coal ash sites (DENR quickly suspended the settlement after the spill).
S729 introduces another actor with high potential to protect Duke from its coal ash problem: a Coal Ash Management Commission. Appointed by the same Gov. McCrory and General Assembly that is shuttling through S729, the commission would have power over DENR to label coal ash dumps at the lowest possible risk level. Any recommendations by the commission would automatically gain passage by the assembly. And the commission could stop dump closures deemed too costly to Duke.
Consequences near and far
Unfortunately, Duke’s influence doesn’t stop with Gov. McCrory, legislators, DENR, or the possible commission. The North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) is also compromised. That matters on coal ash, because NCUC would approve all rate hikes passed onto customers from S729.
How compromised? NCUC chairman Ed Finley worked 27 years as a lawyer for a firm which counted Duke Energy as a client. Finley has been subpoenaed in the criminal investigation following Duke’s coal ash spill. And three other of NCUC’s 7 commissioners had ties to the utility industry previous to their positions.
S729 is scheduled to appear on the senate floor today. The house equivalent, H1228, should get its first round of committee hearings this week.
The house faces a major decision: whether to forward a bill like S729 that serves the financial interests of Duke, or pass legislation that protects the people of North Carolina.
People like Sherry Gobble. Gobble lives next to a coal ash pond at Duke’s Buck Steam Station near Salisbury, NC. Her well water shows concerning levels of lead and a cancer-causing compound, hexavalent chromium. Both chemicals exist in coal ash. “I feel like Duke is going to do everything they can to protect their interests,” Gobble told WCNC reporter Stuart Watson. “I don’t feel like they’re going to protect mine.” With the right bill, the house can.