Fearing scandal after coal ash spill, NC regulators pull out of bogus settlement

by Jason Schwartz

February 11, 2014

People in canoes maneuver in the Dan River where a coal ash spill discolored the river in Eden. Duke Energy said that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released through a broken stormwater pipe from a 27-acre unlined pond at the Dan River Steam Station which closed in 2012.

© Jason Miczek / Greenpeace

Its been widely reported that Duke Energy neglects its coal ash pits, which are huge public health and environmental liabilities.

Its also been reported Duke was warned and even threatened with litigation over the harms its dumped on the communities of North Carolina.

Now it seems that directly after this months enormous coal ash spill on the Dan River, the states Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) scrambled to shield Duke. Details came to light in recent days that DENR may have deliberately played down the scale of the spill.

For days the agency assured North Carolina residents that levels of toxic arsenic, selenium, and chromium downriver from its drained pit were safe.

Then Sunday, a full week after 82,000 tons of coal ash had already entered the Dan, DENR retracted, telling people nearby that arsenic contamination actually exceeded safe levels.

DENR isnt alone in bungling this. Governor Pat McCrory said little to warn the people of his state for five days. Right when they should have sounded the alarm, the governor and the states Department of the Environment and Natural Resources were slow and inaccurate, perhaps hoping the whole thing would blow over.

This is beginning to smell like a scandal, one whose stench goes back a long way.

About the time McCrory became governor, DENR switched its focus from protecting human health and the environment to serving the companies its supposed to regulate. Prior to his political career, Gov. McCrory worked for Duke for 28 years. Since he left he has received more campaign contributions from Duke than any other North Carolina politician. To return the favor, Gov. McCrory studded his administration with former Duke employees.

John Skvarla, McCrory’s appointee to lead DENR, bragged to a newspaper in December about turning the states environmental regulator from North Carolinas number No. 1 obstacle, into a customer-friendly juggernaut in a short time.

Maybe he thought hed been chosen to lead the Chamber of Commerce?

Cover-ups seem to be McCrory & Co.’s expertise. After a massive coal ash spill devastated a watershed in Tennessee in 2008, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and a coalition of organizations targeted Dukes coal North Carolina ash pits in a series of lawsuits. Each time, DENR intervened on Dukes behalf. Finally, after sustained pressure, DENR negotiated with Duke to arrive at a smoke-and-mirrors settlement in which Duke paid $99,000 a pittance for the largest generator of electricity in the country and no mandate to remove its hazardous ash dumps across the state.

Now that its threatened with a growing scandal, DENR seems to be running for political cover.

The agency has asked a judge to suspend that innocuous settlement, presumably to distance itself from Duke. But there are legitimate concerns that this is another stalling tactic, in which promising signs give way to inaction as soon as the media spotlight moves on.

Troublingly, Duke sits on 13 more coal ash dumps across of North Carolina, all just like the one that fouled the Dan River. Its well-documented that coal ash should be considered hazardous waste. It contains toxic concentrations of metals that settle to the bottom of rivers and work slowly up the food chain.

SuttonFishPugnoseUnder certain conditions, these metals can be released in huge pulses.This phenomenon, seen in Tennessee after the 2008 Kingstonash spill, can periodically raise levels of harmful metals in drinking water for years to come.

State regulators have known about drinking water contamination by coal ash for a long time. At Lake Sutton, levels of selenium in groundwater still poses threats to drinking water supply. That lake, which like the Dan is popular with anglers, has seen fish die offs and peculiar facial deformations in one in three of sunfish(top fish in image).

Legal work by the SELC has already resulted in real action in South Carolina to remove 600,000 tons of coal ash from recklessly-managed riverside dumps. But despite pleas, Duke, McCrory, and DENR have done nothing to protect the people or environment of North Carolina. We hope DENRs suspension of its bogus settlements with Duke Energy are a sign that things are beginning to change. But were not nave.

(fish photo above courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance)

Jason Schwartz

By Jason Schwartz

Jason Schwartz is a media officer for Greenpeace USA based in New York City.

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