Duke Energy's Dan River coal-ash spill has become a "clarifying moment" for North Carolina. As the initial shock of the spill — the third largest coal ash "incident" in U.S. history — receded and people began looking into how it happened, an increasingly clear picture emerged of a utility company and a state government entwined in a cozy cuddle that is dangerous for N.C.'s people and natural environment. That's the bad news. The good news is that a newly announced federal investigation into the spill could further clarify things for North Carolinians.
Traditionally, the N.C. government, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, has treated Duke Energy (formerly Duke Power) cautiously and fearfully, as if the utility were a spoiled child with a loaded gun. And that's what Duke has historically been in N.C., where its frequent rate hikes are routinely OK'd or minimally adjusted, while the company points its "political contributions" gun directly at the people in Raleigh who supposedly regulate them.
Now, though, it's even worse. Much worse. If previous, mostly Democratic administrations have been in Duke Energy's pants pocket, the current crop of GOP rulers have figuratively unzipped Duke's pants and dropped to their knees. It's not exactly surprising, considering that our new batch of leaders ran on a platform of rolling back environmental protections, all the better to expedite fracking and offshore drilling for oil and gas. Needless to say, preventing polluters from defiling this beautiful state isn't exactly the McCrory administration's top priority.
In addition, McCrory's former position as a Duke Energy executive doesn't do much for public confidence in his ability to handle the coal-ash mess. And there's also the matter of the way the utility and the governor's people initially performed after the spill. Duke didn't tell the public about the spill until the following day; and the first reports from Duke and the Department of Energy and Natural Resources gave no hint of the enormous scale of the disaster. McCrory became the butt of many jokes when he waited five days to comment on the spill (after the national press started flogging the story) by "demanding" that Duke Energy stop the spill. Um, Pat, I think they may have been trying to do just that for four days before you showed up; oh, never mind.
More ominously, McCrory's pick of John Skvarla to head up the Department of Energy and Natural Resources is coming back to bite him. Skvarla came into office with no experience in environmental matters and announced that his department would now be "partners" with the companies it is supposed to oversee and regulate. That change happened, said Skvarla, because McCrory told him that the Department of Energy and Natural Resources had become "the No. 1 obstacle to economic growth in the state." Skvarla then proceeded to decimate his own department, which became obvious after the Dan River spill, when the Department of Energy and Natural Resources had to retract its first report that arsenic levels in the Dan were low enough to declare the river safe (the department's admission of its mistake only happened after an environmental group tested the water and found it toxic).
Responding to criticism that his administration was too close to Duke Energy, McCrory let loose the latest of his truth-stretching exercises, claiming, "My administration is the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal-ash ponds." He and his administration's credibility took a huge hit, however, a day later with the publication of a new Associated Press story. The AP reported that the legal actions McCrory characterized as a challenge to Duke Energy were instead attempts to shield Duke Energy from lawsuits by environmental groups that had announced plans to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to get rid of its unsafe coal-ash dumps.
Suddenly, some of the governor's allies in the General Assembly started making noises about conducting their own investigation of the spill and forcing Duke to get rid of the coal ash ponds altogether.
Then, a couple of days after McCrory's allies started jumping ship, the federal government revealed its investigation of a suspected felony related to the Dan River spill. The feds subpoenaed emails and documents from both the Department of Energy and Natural Resources and Duke Energy, including records of communication between the agency and the company.
None of this is good news for McCrory, of course, particularly after the Dan River spill showed once and for all that, as the Charlotte Observer editorial writers put it, "critics of coal ash ponds have been right along about the disastrous potential of these unlined, ill-tended sludge pits."
Post-calamity environmental cleanups, both physical and political, are never pleasant. But it's what you get when you bring in semi-competents like Skvarla (and, lest we forget, future incompetency legend Aldona Wos at Department of Health and Human Services) and let them gut their departments.
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