Here is something you might have missed in all the coverage of the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River at a shuttered Duke Energy plant on Feb. 2.
There are a total of 31 coal ash ponds at 14 Duke power plants across the state and they are all leaking — all of them.
Toxins are seeping into the groundwater across North Carolina. State environmental officials know it and admit it — and that is not the most troubling part of the story.
After citizen groups sued Duke Energy to stop the leaks, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources intervened, taking over the lawsuits and then reaching a settlement with the company that included a paltry $99,000 fine but no requirement that Duke take specific actions to clean up the coal ash.
The settlement only directed the company to make its own “determinations” on how to handle the contamination.
A very testy Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla defended the settlement at a combative news conference about the Dan River spill Wednesday, saying that Duke could have fought state efforts in court to force them to clean up the ponds and that would have delayed any action on the coal ash for years.
Apparently under Skvarla’s contorted logic, nothing is being done now to clean up the coal ash because it would have taken years to force Duke to clean up the contamination later. Maybe on some planet that makes sense, but while Skvarla obfuscates the toxins continue to seep into the groundwater.
Skvarla also bristled at suggestions that the state insist on the obvious solution to the problem, requiring Duke Energy to move the coal ash out of the seeping ponds and put it in lined landfills instead, where leaks are far less likely. It’s not a new idea. Utility companies in South Carolina have done it.
But Skvarla said Wednesday that might be too extreme and that some scientists believe moving the coal ash into safer landfills would actually damage the environment. Reporters later pressed state officials for any study or scientist who could support Skvarla’s claim but they couldn’t come up with any.
Skvarla’ boss, Gov. Pat McCrory, seemed to endorse the idea of moving the coal ash out of the ponds in remarks in Greensboro Monday, saying he supported “moving the ash ponds so they don’t cause long-term issues with our water.”
Later Monday afternoon McCrory’s office backed off the remarks, saying that relocating the coal ash was just one option to consider. Then Wednesday McCrory told WRAL that moving the ash out of the ponds was still his preferred solution, but that it may not be the right one in every situation.
McCrory also refused to say if would support legislation to force Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash ponds, the idea that he himself brought up on Monday before his office backed away from his remarks.
None of this inspires much confidence in the folks who are supposed to be protecting our water and the public health.
The U.S. Justice Department thinks more than poor decision making might be going on and has launched a criminal investigation, complete with grand jury subpoenas for state officials and Duke Energy employees.
McCrory’s close ties to the company are also raising questions. He worked for Duke Energy for 28 years and has appointed several former Duke employees to key posts in his administration. And McCrory has received more than a million dollars from the company for his gubernatorial campaigns.
Remember all that when you read about the reasons why the coal ash can’t be cleaned up, the worry about court battles, the off-handed and unsupported scientific claims, and the flip flops on ponds and landfills.
And remember this too. All the coal ash ponds across North Carolina are leaking and toxins continue to seep into the groundwater. The folks in the McCrory Administration know it and admit it — and don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to do anything about it.