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DENR, Duke, McCrory, and the Web of "Customer Service" 

Dan River spill

Photo courtesy of DENR

Dan River spill

U. S. Attorney David Walker has opened a criminal investigation into how the state dealt with Duke Energy's coal-ash pits, reports the Associated Press. Grand jury subpoenas from Walker's office in Raleigh have demanded records and emails from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy related to DENR's actions on the ash pits before and since Gov. Pat McCrory took office.

The subpoenas were issued following the Feb. 2 disaster in Eden, which is in Rockingham County near the Virginia border, where an estimated 50,000 to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spewed into the Dan River through a broken pipe at a Duke facility. The Dan River supplies nearby communities with drinking water.

A cover letter sent with the subpoenas told recipients: "An official criminal investigation of a suspected felony is being conducted." No specific targets were identified.

Suspicious minds, however, focused on a series of actions by DENR in 2013 that shielded Duke from lawsuits filed by environmentalists alarmed about the dangers posed by the pits.

"Conservationists have long thought that for regulators to collaborate with industry to paper over pollution problems and block enforcement of environmental laws ought to be a crime," the N.C. League of Conservation Voters noted sarcastically. "Come to think of it, perhaps it is."

Democracy North Carolina, the campaign finance watchdog group, pointed to possible "political corruption" in the Duke-DENR duet.

While DENR was protecting Duke Energy, Democracy NC Executive Director Bob Hall said, the company ramped up its contributions to Republican campaign committees in North Carolina, including McCrory's. The governor is a former Duke Energy employee.

"Duke's use of campaign contributions to buy protection from regulators needs to be fully examined," Hall said. "What we know about the cozy relationship between McCrory and Duke is disturbing. What we don't know needs to come out in the open."

I'd be shocked—shocked— to learn that the quid pro quo for Duke Energy's contributions was DENR looking the other way about the coal-ash pits. Actually, I'd be shocked if anyone at Duke or DENR was dumb enough to put it in writing.

Perhaps what happened at DENR is instead simply the result of folks there feeling unappreciated by their governor, who seemed to lavish all his attentions in year one on Secretary Aldona Wos and her metastasizing empire at the Department of Health and Human Services.

I can imagine the conversation between DENR staffers:

Staffer No. 1: You know, McCrory keeps saying state government is broken, and Secretary Wos is proving it.

Staffer No. 2: And every time Wos breaks something, the Gov says what a superb job she's doing. And lets her hire more consultants at ridiculous salaries—excuse me, I mean compensation rates commensurate with their true value in a free market.

Staffer No. 1: Isn't there something at DENR we can break?

Yes, I can imagine the staff meeting last year where DENR brass were polishing their buttons and complaining that their efforts, though marvelous, weren't getting enough applause from McCrory or the Republican base.

Didn't DENR Secretary John Skvarla go out of his way to pooh-pooh climate change, insisting that there's no consensus in the scientific community that it's both real and man-made—though, of course, there is a consensus?

Crickets.

And where was the base when DENR cut its budget, left regulatory positions unfilled and rewrote its mission statement to no longer be an environmental enforcement agency ("a bureaucratic obstacle of resistance," as the new statement says) but rather "a service organization"—for good customers.

Customers like Duke Energy with its coals ahs.

Staffer No. 3: What's coal ash?

Staffer No. 1: It's what's left after coal is burned in a coal-fired electric plant. Duke puts the stuff in pits—you know, big holes in the ground. Duke has 14 coal-ash sites, most of them two-holers.

Staffer No. 2: So what's the problem?

Staffer No. 1: Oh, you know, those crazy enviros think the stuff is leaching through the ground into the water supply, and it is full of arsenic and other toxic chemicals.

Staffer No. 4: They're sure a dike around a pit will collapse, or the stuff will find its way into a broken pipe and get discharged into a river—but that could never happen.

After which DENR decided to intervene to block a lawsuit brought by environmental groups. And another, and another.

These citizen lawsuits argued that Duke was threatening public safety by storing dangerous materials in unlined pits near rivers used for drinking water. Duke should be ordered to move its ash, so to speak, to lined landfills away from rivers.

DENR shot back that, by law, it has sole responsibility for water safety, not these mere citizens. To prove its point, DENR hit Duke with a piddling fine ($99,000) for polluting two sites and agreed to let Duke do something some day to close the pits—though DENR's lawyers were back in court last week telling a judge, in effect, "we screwed up."

Meanwhile, Duke or its PAC gave $437,000 in 2013 to Republican campaign groups active in North Carolina, according to Democracy NC. Duke gave $1.1 million to McCrory's gubernatorial campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Duke may also have contributed to Renew North Carolina, the dark-money committee paying for pro-McCrory ads since he took office. But we don't know how much, because Duke and McCrory refuse to say and Renew NC doesn't have to.

So take your choice: Graft, criminal negligence or simple incompetence? For myself, I like to think the best of people.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rivers of Ash."

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Thanks Bob for the passion and ideas delivered in style. Glad you'll still be occasionally writing articles in the future.

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