Back in May, I was excited when the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources decided to sue Duke Energy over cancer-causing pollution in Mountain Island Lake, the major source for Charlotte's water. Even though the state's action happened a full seven months after a Duke University study found high levels of arsenic in Mountain Island Lake - and two months after a report by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center on water pollution at the lake - I was still encouraged (better late than never, I figured). Yep, the department was sassy back in May, saying that Duke's coal ash caused pollution that would threaten our city's water supply. Now, though, not so much - as in, the Department of Energy and Natural Resources has almost completely caved to Duke Energy.
The state announced Monday that it reached an "agreement" with Duke Energy that Duke would assess the sources and extent of coal ash contamination at Mountain Island Lake and at its Asheville plant. The Department of Energy and Natural Resources is essentially relying on the accused polluter to let the state know how much pollution it has caused. And, if the state's complaint against Duke is confirmed by Duke's assessment, the company will be fined a whopping $99,000.
Wow, that'll surely teach a $17 billion company a lesson, huh?
Needless to say, critics pounced. Blue NC wrote, "It's not unlike asking a criminal to prosecute himself . . . and is so far off the mark from what the public expects from NCDENR that it boggles the mind." The Southern Environmental Law Center's Frank Holleman summed up the situation for the Observer this way: "It gives Duke amnesty for its past pollution in return for a token penalty that amounts to a parking ticket for contaminating Mountain Island Lake. And it doesn't stop one ounce of pollution from entering that lake in the future."
Now, a public advocacy group with some serious pull, Democracy North Carolina (the group that launched the investigation of disgraced former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black), claims that Gov. Pat McCrory's long, cozy relationship with Duke Energy is at the heart of what it called Duke and the Department of Energy and Natural Resource's "remarkable sweetheart deal, anchored with $1 million in campaign contributions." Democracy N.C.'s director, Bob Hall, however, doesn't reveal a true smoking gun to back his group's accusation. It's true that McCrory was a 30-year, do-little employee of Duke Energy, and he recruited several Duke execs into his administration. It's also true that McCrory's two gubernatorial campaigns received over $300,000 from Duke-related donors, and raked in millions from a national GOP committee that received over $750,000 from Duke and Progress Energy. In addition, McCrory's assistant secretary at the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, Mitch Gillespie - who, during his legislative career, served as the GOP point man for environmental deregulation - got $32,000 in contributions from Duke while he was in the House.
Here's the thing, though. Yes, the Department of Energy and Natural Resource's "agreement" with Duke Energy is a dereliction of responsibility, and the current administration is decidedly pro-business and generally anti-regulations. But to make the leap from that to saying that the Department of Energy and Natural Resource's agreement was directly influenced by campaign funding is simply too broad a jump, at least without more evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement. Now, we all know that campaign funding often - too often - influences political decision-making, and frankly, Democracy N.C. and Bob Hall are probably right - at least in the sense that the culture of the McCrory/Pope administration is dedicated to helping big businesses. But accusations of what amounts to bribery are, to my mind, unwarranted in this case, and are beneath the usual high standards set by Hall's ostensibly bipartisan group. That doesn't mean that McCrory's no longer the Duke Energy-fellating weasel we've all known; but there's not enough information available to definitively nail the gov on this particular issue.