A federal probe of the coal ash spill will be enlightening

February 16, 2014 

Coal Ash Spill

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)


Words no public or private official wants to hear: “The United States Attorney is going to be asking you some questions in front of a grand jury.”

But the message has been delivered from Thomas Walker, U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District, to Duke Energy and officials of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Subpoenas have gone out.

The issue: a huge coal ash spill, 82,000 tons worth, mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, that drained into the Dan River from the company’s Dan River Steam Station near Eden. A security guard at the station discovered that a pipe running under a toxic waste pond had collapsed.

Duke and DENR, as the department is known, aren’t saying anything, and understandably so. Walker has made environmental protection laws a priority, a welcome contrast to the overall philosophy of the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who vowed to ease regulations on business, which he and his mates like to call “job killers.” The implication of McCrory’s policies is that regulation is bad and businesses should be pretty much left to their own devices and trusted with protecting the air and water.

Walker’s not so sanguine about all that, and already has won criminal sentences and civil penalties against hog farmers, for example.

The point of the subpoenas is to find out all about DENR’s regulation policies with regard to Duke and what types of correspondence the company has had with Duke since January 2010. McCrory was a long-time Duke Energy employee, as were others in his administration.

Walker’s not saying much about the investigation.

But this spill, resulting as it did in pollution of drinking water sources, is no small matter.

And this has the potential, at least, to be an enlightening investigation so far as how McCrory’s administration has been doing, or how it has not been doing, with regard to regulation.

Environmentalists, after all, were extremely concerned with all McCrory’s talk about easing regulation, echoed by remarks from John Skvarla, a businessman and DENR secretary, who has said he wants the agency to be a “partner” to business and have a “customer-friendly” approach.

Apart from this serious investigation, those ideas are wrong from the start. Regulators cannot by nature be “partners” with those whom they are regulating. The relationship is naturally adversarial to a degree, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course regulation should not be unreasonably burdensome, but despite all the rhetoric coming from Republicans, there’s very little evidence to show regulation has hurt business in North Carolina, regarded as one of the most “business friendly” states in the country.

And in the area of water resources, rules have to be especially strict. These are finite resources, after all, and pollution of waterways has dire implications for communities downstream dependent upon rivers and streams for drinking water.

Walker, appointed by President Obama, doubtless stands to be accused by Republicans of partisanship and by the pro-business lobby of being a tree hugger. So be it. He is doing his job in being aggressive about pursuing the causes of a significant water pollution event, and he should leave no stone unturned and no river unnavigated.

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