Step #1 in making a better coal ash law? Stop Dukes corrupting influence

by Brian Johnson

June 24, 2014

A very important bill is sailing through the North Carolina Senate. Only four months following Dukes massive coal ash spill at Dan River plant, S729 is the senates working answer to Dukes coal ash problem. Whether the bill will contain all the necessary policies to solve that problem remains to be seen. On thing is certain: Dukes corrupting influence isnt helping.

Dukes 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. Whats held it back? Start with NC Governor Pat McCrory, who proposed a similar version of the bill back in April.

McCrorys 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 Dukes, a fact that brings to mind McCrorys 28 years as a Duke employee prior to assuming office. Duke has also invested handsomely in McCrorys 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 McCrorys 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. Dukes 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.

Mccrory Apodaca Berger Finley

Going clockwise from the upper left: NC Senator Tom Apodaca, Senator Phil Berger, NC Utilities Commission Chairman Ed Finley, and NC Governor Pat McCrory.


Favorable terms

S729 hasnt just been hampered by Dukes cozy governmental relations. The bill has the potential to strengthen Dukes favor.

Under S729, the coal ash pit closure process would start with NCs Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which would rank Dukes pits according to three levels of risk. Normally a states environmental department would serve as a natural place for such a process. Gov. McCrorys DENR, however, has proven wanting to say the least.

DENR is under federal criminal investigation following revelations that it protected Dukes coal ash dumps from lawsuits by environmental groups. The New York Times reported massive suppression of DENRs regulatory role following McCrorys 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, Dukes influence doesnt 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 Dukes coal ash spill. And three other of NCUCs 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 Dukes 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 dont feel like theyre going to protect mine. With the right bill, the house can.

Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

Brian is a campaigner with Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Team. Follow him @BFWJohnson.

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