Shot: last week, Governor McCrory quietly disbanded the independent commission charged with overseeing the cleanup and closure of unlined coal ash pits across the state. It will now fall under the purview of the Department of Environmental Quality, an agency renowned for its subservience to McCrory's former employer, Duke Energy.
Chaser: a Winston-Salem Journal report last weekend found that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services changed the standard used to determine whether water contaminated with elements related to coal ash is safe to drink, overriding its own toxicologists, who warned that the levels of hexavalent chromium in some wells are too high.
Under the new standards, water with "acceptable" levels of hexavalent chromium would give a person a one-in-seven-hundred lifetime risk of getting cancer; formerly the standard was one in a million. DHHS emails showed that scientists warned officials that the new standards were "outdated" and "unacceptable."
"Rather than fix the problem, the Department of Environmental Quality and the McCrory administration decided, 'Let's just raise the water quality standard so we no longer have to tell these families that their water is unsafe to drink,'" says Logan Smith, communications director for Progress NC Action.
Smith says this will make it easier for Duke Energy to cap its coal ash rather than excavate it (a safer but more costly option). It also allows Duke to stop providing bottled water to families in the mostly small, rural communities affected by coal-ash contamination.
All of this, says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, could backfire on McCrory come November.
"We're in the middle of an election year, and the public has made it clear that it wants coal ash moved to dry-lined storage and the sites cleaned up," Holleman says. "If the governor turns his back on the people, you have to believe he will pay the political price."