Voices raised in Lee County on coal ash

In Sanford, strong-willed Lee County residents made it clear they don’t trust the plans for Duke Energy’s proposal to store coal ash that’s seeping arsenic and other heavy metals at two landfills. The ash has been accumulating for decades at 14 locations of power plant sites.

A huge spill in the Dan River early last year prompted action on the dangers of coal ash. The spill drew national attention, the kind of attention Duke didn’t want. To complicate matters, Gov. Pat McCrory was a longtime Duke Energy employee. And, Republicans have been in the business ever since taking charge at the General Assembly of diminishing environmental regulation whenever they could, all in the name of being “pro-business.”

Duke’s paid fines. But storage has been controversial, as residents who might be near such sites worry, understandably so, about toxic material affecting their drinking water.

Duke paid $12 million to Lee County and got its landfill disposal permit, after county officials agreed not to challenge the permit. In Chatham County, site of another proposed landfill, officials are still pondering their options.

Duke also has spread some cash around to the Republican Governors Association, at the very time McCrory and GOP lawmakers were formulating their response to the Dan River spill. The company gave the RGA, from June to December of last year, over $3 million in contributions, 10 times what it previously had felt inclined to give.

Of course, the RGA is the group that was a dominating booster for McCrory when he ran for governor in 2012. It spent $5 million on him, and it’s likely it will spend at least that as McCrory gears up an assumed re-election campaign.

Said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy South, a watchdog group that reported the Duke contributions: “Duke Energy’s large donations raise questions about the governor’s ability to serve the public interest more than his own political interest. Critics say the coal ash regulation law passed in 2014 was too soft on Duke. Is this money the reason why?”

Citizens who opposed the coal ash landfill story from the beginning don’t have that kind of money, but they do have a passion for the cause of environmental protection, and the Republicans who seem to undermine such protections at every turn need to be warned. There may be better ways to store coal ash than there used to be, and there may be thicker liners for the landfills and the monitoring of groundwater.

But it’s in the interest of all that any system of storage be foolproof, and absolutely so. Should the liners leak and the ground be contaminated, the state could be looking at an environmental and economic catastrophe. And Duke Energy would be facing a legal response of epic proportion.

Opponents of the landfill sites make two points: One, they think Duke should have to store the ash on company property; two, they think officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources should require water testing before the ash goes in storage to provide a baseline from which to monitor potential water contamination in the future.

Duke may be able to make arguments over storing on its property based on nearby populations, etc., but it’s hardly a perfect argument. And the demand of opponents on water testing is absolutely sound and should meet no opposition from state officials.

Heavy political contributions may help Duke stem what the company believes is excessive regulation, but it doesn’t do much for credibility with the public. It appears the company is using friends in high places, or trying to make friends in high places, to protect itself.

The coal ash escaped; an environmental hazard was painfully obvious to all with stomach-turning pictures of the river. No wonder residents of Lee County were so adamant in expressing their concerns. It’s unfortunate that state lawmakers are not just as passionate in answering those concerns.