Before coal ash spill, GOP was bashing environmental rules, groups

March 22, 2014 

Gov. Pat McCrory is regularly shaking his head over spills, leaks and discharges from coal ash storage ponds operated by his former employer, Duke Energy. And last week he stepped up demands that the utility present a clear plan for how it will clean its 14 ash storage sites.

After the utility was recently caught pumping some 61 million gallons of coal ash slurry into a canal feeding the Cape Fear River, the governor said, “It’s time for Duke Energy to come out of the shadows and to publicly address this growing problem.”

It’s appropriate for the governor to be indignant. But it would also be appropriate for him to be apologetic.

Members of the McCrory administration stress that the problem of hazardous coal ash storage has been around for decades and that many prior administrations failed to adequately address the risks. That’s a valid point, but not the whole story. And that’s where an apology, or at least some public soul searching, is due from the governor, his secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Republican leaders in the General Assembly.

As a group, they’re not responsible for the massive coal ash spill in the Dan River, the pumping into the Cape Fear River or the leaking storage ponds that have polluted groundwater in some areas. But they are responsible for taking a dismissive and sometimes derisive approach to environmental regulations and groups.

Last August, McCrory signed a law that will make sweeping changes to state rules, including many involving environmental protection.

As the Associated Press reported last week, a brief provision of the regulatory reform bill extended the compliance line for groundwater violations to the owner’s property line. The change “allowed Duke to avoid any costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater leaching from its unlined dumps toward rivers, lakes and the drinking wells of nearby homeowners,” the AP said.

The new law also requires that state rules and regulations be classified by level of necessity. Those deemed “not necessary” will automatically expire.

When he signed the bill that would spare Duke cleanup costs and possibly wipe hundreds of environmental rules off the books, McCrory said, “For decades, Democrats have stifled small businesses and job creators with undue bureaucratic burden and red tape. This common-sense legislation cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulation and puts job creation first here in North Carolina.”

McCrory’s push to put “job creators” first also played a role in DENR shielding Duke Energy from lawsuits – over coal ash leaks – that were about to be brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of several environmental groups.

And it was only last December that state Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata mocked the SELC as “ivory tower elitists” for filing a lawsuit that has blocked construction of a replacement for the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks.

McCrory joined the attack on the SELC, saying, “They’re putting people in jeopardy. And they’re putting jobs in jeopardy.”

What those “ivory tower elitists” have been doing is trying to protect people from toxic coal ash while the McCrory administration was thwarting their efforts.

And it was another of those groups, the Waterkeeper Alliance, that exposed Duke Energy illegally pumping water from coal ash ponds into the canal that runs into the Cape Fear River.

The governor can say all he wants to Duke Energy, but it won’t mean much until he, his appointees and Republican legislative leaders admit they have a new appreciation for the value of environmental regulation and the groups dedicated to protecting the environment.

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