McCrory needs to make a full response to coal ash questions

February 26, 2014 

Three weeks after millions of gallons of wastewater and up to 39,000 tons of coal ash laced with toxic metals spilled into the Dan River from a Duke Energy storage facility, Gov. Pat McCrory – a Duke Energy employee for 29 years – sent a letter to his hometown paper, The Charlotte Observer, “to set the record straight.”

Unfortunately, the letter wasn’t about the spill and whether the McCrory administration’s credo of treating polluters as “customers” had anything to do with the lax regulation that contributed to the environmental mess.

No, the governor was addressing a different customer issue, namely the tiff he had with an employee at a Charlotte food store that led to the employee’s being fired. McCrory said that the employee, Drew Swope, 45, made an obscene gesture at him and that when McCrory responded by dryly saying, “Thank you,” Swope said, “Thanks for nothing.”

Swope’s alleged behavior was wrong, but his comment, in the context of the coal ash spill, was right. When snow hit North Carolina a few weeks back, McCrory jumped into emergency response mode and appeared at news conferences to inform North Carolinians about the state’s response. But when the coal ash spill drew national attention, McCrory went missing.

To Skvarla’s credit

Reporters have caught him at events, and he has commented, but he hasn’t held a news conference to explain the actions of his Department of Environment and Natural Resources, his relationship with Duke Energy, what he will do about the threat posed by 32 ash ponds at 14 locations around the state and what he thinks of the U.S. Attorney launching an investigation into the state’s regulation of coal ash storage.

To his credit, DENR Secretary John Skvarla did hold an hourlong news conference to explain the spill and his agency’s actions before and after. Skvarla didn’t answer all questions, and he avoided commenting on DENR employees being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney, but at least he addressed the spill head on.

In truth, that uncomfortable task shouldn’t have fallen to the DENR secretary. The coal ash spill is a major event with statewide implications for the safety of drinking water. It collides with McCrory’s goal of creating a business-friendly environment even for those businesses that aren’t friendly to the environment. It involves a utility that formerly employed the governor and Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker. It’s connected to a federal investigation of state regulators. It’s something a governor should address fully and directly.

Questions remain

On Tuesday, the governor and the DENR secretary sent a letter to Duke Energy saying, “As a state we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water.” They want all coal ash ponds moved away from water sources.

That’s a welcome request, but the state’s sudden interest in the threat doesn’t remove doubts raised by its previous actions. DENR was willing to let Duke Energy resolve state concerns about two leaking coal ash sites by paying a $99,000 fine with no requirement to move the ponds. The proposed settlement – held up for review after the Dan River spill – came after the state pre-empted suits planned by the Southern Environmental Law Center. When the SELC sued two South Carolina utilities over unsafe coal ash storage, the suits resulted in settlements that had the ash removed to dry storage in lined landfills or recycled as part of building materials. Why didn’t DENR let the same course be taken here?

McCrory’s demand that Duke Energy remove its ash ponds from proximity to water sources also leaves open who will pay for the moves – ratepayers or utility stock holders? In South Carolina, it was done without a rate increase.

Now that McCrory has set the record straight about the store employee who insulted him, it’s time he addressed the many questions involving the state “customer” who insulted the environment.

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