"Protect the environment. And do the right thing." That, according to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla, is the only thing Gov. Pat McCrory told him after learning about a massive coal-ash spill into the Dan River by his former employer, Duke Energy.
What DENR and Duke will do next—and whether Duke customers will pay for the cleanup—were at the core of Monday's meeting of the N.C. General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission, which heard a report on the Feb. 2 spill outside a retired coal plant in Eden. Initial Duke reports indicated the spill dumped about 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the river, but later company estimates scaled that number back to 30,000 tons, the third largest of its kind in U.S. history. DENR has not provided an independent estimate of the spill.
The utility, according to environmental experts, may have polluted the Dan River with heavy metals such as arsenic—which has been linked to cancer and neurologic ailments—for years to come. The river is a vital drinking water source for nearby towns in North Carolina and Virginia.
Tom Reeder, director of DENR's Division of Water Quality, downplayed the severity of the ash spill Monday, pointing out some of the heavy metals found in the coal ash naturally occur in North Carolina. However, their presence in the environment does not make them safe.
Reeder said initial samples taken from the Dan River following the spill exceeded federal water quality standards for arsenic, aluminum, copper and iron, but waned in the days after. However, Reeder said concerns remain about heavy metals settling into the river bottom, which will kill some aquatic life.
"Our biggest job ahead of us is trying to return the Dan River to what it was like before Feb. 2," Reeder said.
Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, said that won't be easy. "It's going to be very hard for Duke to get that ash out of the river," Gaskins said. "It's kind of like the Humpty Dumpty thing. You can't ever put it back together again."
Gaskins' group is one of many environmental organizations that have called on Duke Energy to dispose of its ponds, which act as containment areas for the toxic byproduct of coal energy plants. Duke Energy owns 10 ponds in North Carolina that are denoted as "high-hazard" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, activists say.
Most of Duke's coal plants in North Carolina, including the one in Eden, have been closed, but the ponds remain. Environmental groups say the unlined ponds are leaky and endanger North Carolina waterways.
George Everett, Duke Energy director of environmental and legislative affairs, said the energy company plans to drain the ponds and move the toxic ash elsewhere, such as a landfill. Pressed to offer more details by Sen. Austin Allran, a Republican commission member from Catawba County, Everett declined on Monday to provide a timeline for the move, but apologized for the spill.
Asked who would pay for the Dan River cleanup, Everett told legislators that it could be Duke Energy customers. That prompted a sharp rebuttal from Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, who argued Duke shareholders should pay instead.
The reaction from lawmakers to Duke's apology was mixed. Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican from Davidson County, thanked Duke Energy for its "proactive" response. Others, such as commission Chairman Mike Hager, a Republican state representative from Rutherford County who once worked as an engineer for Duke Energy, indicated legislative action could be forthcoming, although he was not specific.
"We have to move this issue down the road from being a reactive issue to being a proactive issue," Hager said. "I think this legislative body is one that can do that."
Meanwhile, the spill has intensified pressure on McCrory to disclose his ties, financial or otherwise, to the energy giant. Last week, DENR and Duke Energy executives were reportedly subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury investigating regulators' relationship to Duke Energy.
Facing South, an online publication of the Institute for Southern Studies, reported Monday that five members of state government, including DENR ombudsman Joseph Harwood and DENR Communication Director Drew Elliott, worked for Duke or Progress Energy, which became a subsidiary of Duke in 2012.
Last year, DENR agreed to a state court settlement with Duke that would force the energy company to pay more than $99,000 in fines for leaky ash ponds, a move viewed by critics as an attempt by DENR to protect Duke from more costly lawsuits filed in federal court by environmental groups. DENR asked to suspend that settlement following the spill.
The Dan River spill was not the only environmental disaster discussed during Monday's lengthy commission meeting. DENR and City of Burlington officials also explained how a city sewer overflow on Jan. 27 allowed roughly 4 million gallons of untreated liquid sewage to course into the Haw River, which feeds into the water supply for about 300,000 Triangle residents.
The accident, which Reeder ranked among the top 50 sewer spills in North Carolina history, was plugged two days later. Officials blamed the overflow on an aging force main intended to pump sewage uphill to the city's wastewater treatment plant. The sewage spill prompted additional questions about why Burlington officials failed to publicly disclose the spill within the 48 hour timeframe required by state law.
"That wasn't Burlington's fault. That was our fault," Reeder said, explaining that an on-site DENR worker made an unauthorized decision to give Burlington more time to make a public statement.
Environmental experts and Reeder acknowledged the spill would have been significantly more damaging to the Haw River had it happened in the summer. Freezing temperatures in the region prevented bacterial growth in the river, Reeder said, adding that his organization noted no fish killed by the spill or any measurable impact on water quality.
But Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, called on state and local leaders to invest in finding potential sewer spills before they happen.
"If we think it's the right thing to treat our rivers as sewers, we should keep doing this," Chiosso said. "Otherwise, we're going to have to prioritize."