Dial down the Dan River blame game

Mar. 10, 2014 @ 02:15 PM

Enough with the hysteria, finger pointing and partisanship. The Duke Energy coal ash spill needs immediate action, there’s blame enough to go around and we need to focus on fixing problems.

Edison’s invention of the light bulb triggered a demand for electricity that continues today. Because power lines needed to be constructed to transmit the electricity it was impractical and uneconomical to have several electric companies competing in the same community. And because of the high costs of constructing poles and lines in sparsely populated rural areas many companies didn’t want to provide them electricity. Over time investor-owned utilities became the primary power generation sources.

A grand bargain was struck. In exchange for ensuring that the utility company, municipality or co-op would make the necessary investment to provide electricity for everyone within their service area the state would grant them monopoly status and regulate them to ensure these monopolies didn’t run roughshod over users with unfair charges or improper customer service.

That regulation was assigned to the N.C. Utilities Commission, an expansion of the 1891 N.C. Railroad Commission, the oldest regulatory agency in our state. There has always been ongoing tension between keeping user rates as low as possible while ensuring sufficient capacity to meet the growing demand. The Public Utilities Act guaranteed regulated utilities a reasonable rate of return on their investments.

The day-to-day task for overseeing and enforcing environmental laws falls to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This organization is governed by our laws, the realities of dealing with large utility companies and politicians at many levels. Its mandate is to protect the citizens of our state with reasonable policies. 

All fuel sources have advantages and drawbacks, but coal has often been the preferred source to generate electricity because it has traditionally been cheapest. There has been ongoing concern over emitting air pollution but few raised public awareness of the potential problems with coal ash holding ponds. We now know DENR employees have been concerned about those problems for years, often constrained by politicians, but also by not having practicable solutions.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, beginning with our demands as consumers that we get the cheapest electricity possible any time we want it. Utility companies want to make the most money possible. Politicians want to keep their PAC money coming while keeping voters happy. And DENR employees want to do their jobs while also keeping their jobs. Environmentalists want to protect our air, water and land. All have legitimate wants and needs. What has occurred in the past has been (or should have been) done with our full knowledge.

For sure it is helpful to determine how our safeguards broke down or were never put in place. It is just and reasonable to have conversations about the proper role and relationship between regulators, those being regulated and politicians. But at this moment we need to focus less on the witch-hunt of blame and more on what we need to do to fix the problems. No one should be protected but neither will it benefit to persecute them, unless it can be determined that illegal, negligent or harmful activities have occurred.

It is a time to worry less about bad guys and good eyes and work together to fix the Dan River spill and prevent future ones. At the end of the day we are all on the same side. 

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN,  airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at www.ncspin.com.