Outrage over the Duke fine

One hopes Thomas Reeder’s furnace is in good working order. He’s North Carolina’s assistant secretary at the Department of Environmental Quality, and in view of his candid and refreshing comments criticizing a bargain fine for Duke Energy in its coal ash fiasco, things are liable to get a little chilly at the office and come winter maybe at home.

Perhaps it’s the Marine in Reeder, but in court filings related to the coal ash violations case, he said things plainly: “If it was up to me, it would have been about $50 million,” he said of the $25.1 million fine levied on Duke for years of coal ash violations. Power companies had dumped the ash into open pits for decades. The public wasn’t as aware over those years of the hazards of dumping toxic waste near drinking water.

But in February 2014, an ugly, polluting coal ash spill into the Dan River rudely raised awareness. It also threw Duke Energy into the midst of a troublesome and expensive controversy. After legislative action, Duke is shutting down and cleaning up half of its 14 coal ash sites. And the company got stuck with a $25 million fine. But now the power company, former employer of Gov. Pat McCrory, has settled with the state for $7 million.

Interesting things have come out in the court papers, including the fact that some utility managers at risk of losing their bonuses might have been motivated to delay disclosing groundwater contamination.

But Reeder’s views are by far the most interesting to come out thus far, and they only give credence to the claims of critics of the deal that Duke got too much of a bargain.

The News & Observer’s John Murawski reported that Reeder and other environmental officials were angered especially by the fact that Duke paid a $100 million criminal fine to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That made state officials look bad, as if Duke were afraid of the feds and dismissive of the state.

“You rolled over,” Reeder told Duke’s lawyers, “and wrote them a check for $100 million and pleaded guilty to crimes that technically weren’t even crimes. You’re not writing us a check. You write the feds a check. You cop a plea. Us, you’re going to take us to court and fight us, when you actually did damage here.” Wow.

Duke has tried to defend itself by noting that groundwater has many contaminants that are naturally present and may not be related to coal ash, and that at places where there was coal ash, some of the contaminants aren’t in significant amounts.

Unfortunately for the company, too many people saw the sickening evidence of the Dan River spill. And now, an official of the McCrory administration, inadvertently perhaps, has spoken the truth about the Duke settlement.