Coal Ash Issue

DENR fights images as too cozy with Duke Energy

Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla on Monday pushed back against criticism that his agency has become too close to the businesses it regulates.

After a legislative hearing in Raleigh on Monday, Skvarla bristled at environmental activists’ criticism over his agency’s decision not to force Duke Energy to shut down its coal ash ponds.

“We have done more than any administration in history to solve this problem,” Skvarla said. “I’m incredulous that anyone thinks we haven’t taken action on this.”

Skvarla is facing increased scrutiny since last week’s revelation that federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into his agency’s relationship with Duke Energy. Prosecutors have subpoenaed records and correspondence between DENR and the company.

Although the demand for documents goes back to the Democratic administration that was in power in January 2010, questions about potential conflicts of interest were heightened with the election of Gov. Pat McCrory because he worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

On Friday, McCrory told reporters he hadn’t talked to company executives or lobbyists about the state’s proposed settlement of environmental violations at two Duke Energy coal ash sites. Skvarla told the legislative committee on Monday that he informed the governor last year that the agency would be taking enforcement action against Duke Energy’s 14 ash sites in separate lawsuits.

“When I briefed the governor about the initiation of suits, he said, ‘Protect the environment and do the right thing,’ ” Skvarla said. “That was the extent of our conversation about the initiation of lawsuits against Duke Power.”

After the meeting, an agitated Skvarla told reporters that DENR would host a news conference this week to answer questions that have been raised. He said some of the news reporting on the issue has been inaccurate, but he declined to go into details Monday.

‘What’s the real story?’

The Associated Press has reported that the agency maneuvered to block lawsuits by environmental groups and quoted environmentalists saying Duke Energy was treated leniently, as the proposed settlement only required the company to pay $99,111. Skvarla disputed that characterization.

“Nobody’s asked for a complete explanation about … all the things that we’ve been accused of,” Skvarla said. “Nobody has bothered to say, ‘What is the real story?’ ”

The AP says it has tried to get that information from DENR without success.

One veteran lawmaker who has tried unsuccessfully every year since 2009 to win backing for bills that would toughen regulations on coal ash ponds says it isn’t just the Republicans who have resisted environmental regulations.

“We’ve been doing an inadequate job of paying attention to environmental protection before this administration,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro.

Harrison said she contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House last week to make sure they knew what was happening at the Dan River.

“We were worried DENR had a cozy relationship with the industry, and just wanted to make sure the federal agency was on it,” she said.

Harrison said she thinks federal prosecutors’ sudden interest in the issue could be driven in part by a desire to determine if the agency’s customer-friendly credo is inappropriate.

Skvarla, however, flatly disagreed that’s what has led to the grand jury investigation.

“No, not whatsoever,” he said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer