This week marks the second anniversary of Duke Energy’s coal ash contaminated water spilling into the Dan River. The political appointees who head the state Department of Environmental Quality have failed to follow the recommendations of their own staff and proposed designations for coal ash dumps that would allow Duke Energy to leave most of its coal ash in unlined holes in the ground, where it will continue to leach pollutants into the sources of drinking water for many families and communities.
Allowing Duke Energy to leave leaking coal ash in place is just the latest disappointment from an agency that too often bends over backward to help Duke Energy at the expense of people and clean water.
The obstruction and foot-dragging by DEQ in cleaning up polluting coal ash sites are shocking. It has attempted to block lawsuits by citizens to clean up sites, agreed not to seek information on sites from Duke in its enforcement cases, reached a unilateral agreement with Duke not to enforce state groundwater regulations and actually opposed in court cleanups at coal ash sites in Chatham County, Goldsboro and Lumberton – without success, fortunately. DEQ’s cozy relationship with Duke became the topic of a federal criminal grand jury investigation.
With its proposed risk designations for coal ash sites, DEQ’s political leadership goes out of its way to help Duke Energy once again. The key question for North Carolinians living with this threat to our water is whether Duke will have to clean up its leaking coal ash and move it to safer dry, lined storage or recycle it for beneficial uses, as is being done at every utility coal ash site in South Carolina.
Under the pressure of Clean Water Act enforcement from citizen groups, Duke committed to clean up seven of 14 sites in North Carolina. The seven remaining sites – and the communities surrounding them – are still in limbo. Under state law, a rating of “high” or “intermediate” risk requires a cleanup at these sites, while a rating of “low” may allow the ash to remain in leaking unlined pits near waterways.
DEQ’s professional technical staff is familiar with Duke’s coal ash sites and their long history of structural problems and pollution. In an internal document dated Nov. 30 – just one month prior to the ratings announced by DEQ’s political leaders – DEQ’s staff set out its detailed risk ratings based on groundwater, surface water and dam safety concerns. Considering years of data, the staff rated virtually every coal ash dump as “high” risk, which would require removal of the coal ash to dry, lined storage.
But within a few days, DEQ’s political appointees – including the secretary who last summer attended a secret dinner with Duke Energy’s CEO hosted by Gov. Pat McCrory at the Governor’s Mansion – rewrote those ratings to let Duke Energy off the hook. Now, DEQ’s proposal requires no coal ash removal and cleanups other than those Duke Energy had already announced, save for one basin at the Roxboro site.
DEQ’s political appointees flipped the professional staff’s recommendations at some sites from “high” to “low” to protect Duke Energy from having to clean up its mess. At other sites, DEQ’s political heads simply failed to meet their responsibility to designate the sites into one of the three categories. It downgraded its own staff’s rating for these leaking coal ash sites from “high” to something it made up called “low-intermediate” – a nonclassification apparently intended to avoid a decision on whether the coal ash must be removed.
DEQ claimed a lack of information from Duke, but it has known about the problems at these sites for years, and since filing its enforcement cases has studiously sought to avoid gathering – and prevent citizens from gathering – information from Duke in court proceedings.
DEQ’s political appointees are now touting an upcoming public participation process on their proposed risk designations of coal ash sites. The people of North Carolina have an opportunity to speak up for clean water and demand a real cleanup. All the communities living downstream from Duke Energy’s coal ash sites deserve clean water. All of us depend on our rivers, lakes and groundwater for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing – so let’s hope DEQ’s top officials stop playing political games to shield Duke Energy and start listening.
Derb Carter is the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices