For the sake of North Carolina, Skvarla must go

Fayetteville ObserverMarch 18, 2014 

If Gov. Pat McCrory wants to preserve even a shred of credibility with North Carolina voters, he’s got to fire John Skvarla. Not tomorrow or the day after. Now.

And he’s got to install a new boss at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who’s more serious about protecting the environment than about going easy on Big Business.

Romancing industry is Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker’s job, and she’s pretty good at it. The DENR boss is there to protect our water and air. On that count, Secretary Skvarla flunks.

When nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash at a Duke Energy power plant spilled into the Dan River last month, Pinehurst resident Skvarla and his top managers were quick to downplay damage and slow to act.

And when an environmental group slammed DENR for sabotaging its lawsuits against Duke for the dangerous pollution emanating from its coal-ash ponds at 14 power plants, Skvarla was full of faux outrage. And never mind that by filing the suits – and at long last grudgingly acknowledging the danger that DENR was long aware of – the state agency quickly steered the resolution to a $99,000 wrist slap for the nation’s largest electric utility.

Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center, which had brought those suits against Duke, released some emails between DENR and Duke officials, showing a chummy relationship between the two organizations (which a federal grand jury is investigating), with Duke dictating some of the terms of the lawsuit settlement. One DENR email even asked “how Duke wants to be sued.” A law center lawyer said the emails are “just part and parcel of DENR not enforcing the law.”

A DENR spokesman says it’s much ado about very little. The emails “are mischaracterized, to put it mildly.”

In truth, they are entirely in character with what Skvarla set out to create: an agency that protects businesses. As soon as he took over the state’s environmental bureaucracy last year, he made that clear to its employees.

To what extent was he doing the governor’s bidding? No way to know for sure, but it’s hard to ignore that McCrory was a career Duke Energy employee and that he and the state’s top politicians have reaped millions in donations from people and PACs related to Duke. There’s that credibility thing again. The governor and his administration are going to bleed out pretty soon, if they don’t apply some tourniquets.

The first tourniquet should be Skvarla’s necktie – the one he leaves behind as he walks out the door for good.

Being business-friendly is a good thing, but it gets ugly fast when it’s at the expense of the health and safety of the people who live here. And that’s been the nature of the relationship between Duke Energy and state government all along.

Who, after all, allowed Duke to store highly toxic coal ash in unlined ponds, many of them adjacent to important waterways that are also drinking-water sources for millions of people? What could possibly go wrong with that?

Who ignored repeated entreaties for tougher standards?

Who even ignored evidence that some of those ponds have long been leaching poisons and heavy metals into the groundwater and then into people’s wells?

State regulators and lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to those concerns for years – since long before McCrory and Skvarla took office.

But it’s their problem now. If McCrory can’t solve it fast, he makes a good case to vote for the other guy in 2016, because this problem won’t be forgotten by then.

Hire a competent environmental regulator to run DENR, tell him or her to enforce the law (yes, even for Duke and industrial-scale hog farms) and get out of the way.

MCT Information Services

Tim White is the Fayetteville Observer’s editorial page editor.

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