DENR finally steps up

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 09:14 AM

It has taken too long and too many questionable developments have occurred, but we are grateful that finally the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has shown a hint of spine in dealing with Duke Energy.

The record of favorable treatment, winking at violations and lax oversight before and after the energy giant’s coal ash pond have been troubling, to say the least. Evidence suggests that the insistence on loosening regulations and getting bureaucratic oversight out of the way of “creating jobs” might have gone too far, to say the least.

But this week, DENR officials rebuffed Duke’s plan to clean up 33 ash ponds at 14 plants.  DENR Secretary John Skvaria — who has heretofore done verbal gyrations to defend his agency’s mild treatment of Duke — labeled the plan inadequate, according to the News and Observer of Raleigh. The agency told Duke to produce by Saturday a more detailed and comprehensive plan to remove the coal ash.

The agency’s new firmness comes as the N. C. Utilities Commission wades into the fray, legislators are preparing legislation to introduce in the session that begins in May, many assail the utility’s assertion that customers, not investors, will pay the costs to clean up the spill — and an advocacy group releases internal emails that seem to indicate the DENR staff and Duke representatives were in closer collaboration than would seem appropriate.

As Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss of the Associated Press reported, the emails “suggest state regulators were coordinating Duke Energy before intervening in efforts by citizens groups trying to sue the company over groundwater pollution leeching from its coal-ash dumps.”

Complained Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center:

“Duke is the lawbreaker. DENR is the law enforcement agency. They are supposed to be protecting the people. Instead, they are working with the lawbreaker to find a way to limit the participation of citizens groups in the law enforcement proceedings.”

Duke has charged that the law center displayed “a reckless disregard for the facts” and the exchanges may have been fairly routine in negotiations between the state agency and businesses it regulates. Still, taken with other evidence of favorable treatment of Duke, the emails raise further questions about the nature of the relationship.

The legislation Democrats are drafting would among other things require Duke to close and move all of its coal ash ponds in safe storage away from water sources, the N & O reported. It would prohibit putting any more ash into the ponds and prevent Duke from clean-up costs on to its customers.

It is important legislation the legislature should pass.

Over the ensuing weeks, the debate will continue and no doubt be further enveloped by partisan rhetoric, especially since Gov. Pat McCrory’s foes will continue to suggest his former employment by Duke compromises his objectivity.

We hope, as this process unfolds, DENR will continue to find the tenacity to enforce rigorously the state’s laws designed to protect our waterways and water supplies.