February 9, 2014
One of the silliest headlines last week came in a news release from Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office —“Governor McCrory Directs Duke Energy to Bring Coal Ash Spill Under Control.” That ought to get things cleaned up immediately.
It’s nice of McCrory to get involved but simply directing his former employer to do what they must do anyway doesn’t accomplish anything.
If McCrory really wants to help with the massive coal ash spill in the Dan River, he can launch an investigation into how the spill happened in the first place and how long it took for the company to notify the public. He can create a task force to take a serious look at the regulation of coal ash in North Carolina.
And he can tell his Department of Environment and Natural Resources to take more samples of the river closer to where the 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash tumbled into the water.
The Associated Press reported this week that state officials and Duke Energy worked together to take water samples a couple of miles from the site of the spill. Those samples showed levels of arsenic and other toxins that were described as safe for fish and humans.
But samples taken by environmental groups close to the spill showed arsenic levels nine times higher. DENR’s responsibility is not to cooperate with Duke Energy, it is to protect the environment and the health and safety of the people in North Carolina.
And DENR’s job is also to find out what happened and to hold the company responsible for the damages it caused. That’s the headline we need to see from the governor’s office.
Here a few numbers about the disaster from the Institute for Southern Studies. It’s the third worst coal ash spill in U.S. history. The toxic waste spilled could fill as many as 677 rail cars and Duke Energy spent $6 million last year lobbying against coal ash regulations.
Who are DENR’s customers anyway?
The massive coal ash disaster comes on the heels of a spill of 3.5 million gallons of sewage by the city of Burlington into the Haw River. DENR officials apparently told city officials to delay public notification of the spill which finally came four days after the leak was first reported to the city.
The delay in public disclosure in both cases raises more questions about the priorities of the McCrory Administration when it comes to environmental protections.
DENR Secretary John Skvarla often says he wants the department to be all about customer service, that is making it easier for corporations to get the help and permits they need to operate in the state. The recent spills in the rivers serve as a stark reminder that citizens of the state are customers too, and they deserve an environmental agency dedicated to protecting public health and the state’s natural resources.
Speaking of DENR and Secretary Skvarla, many of the media reports about the work of the Mining and Energy Commission keep leaving out some important information that readers and viewers need to know — namely that George Howard, one of the members of the commission, is Skvarla’s former business partner. Indeed, the two men started a business together.
Last week, the commission voted to recommend setback requirements as part of the state’s standards for fracking for natural gas by establishing minimum distances from homes and streams for the drilling operations. And while, to his credit, Howard supported a slight increase in the setbacks, it certainly seems as if his relationship with the DENR Secretary at least deserved a mention.
Let’s hope reporters do not lose sight of this important fact in the weeks and months ahead. Most media outlets reported the relationship when Howard was appointed to the Mining Commission, but it seems very important to remind people of it — especially when and if Howard tries to stand in the way of regulations on fracking that Skvarla’s department may have to enforce.
Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the lone dissenting vote on the setback rules to George Howard. The actual dissenter was Commission member Charles Holbrook