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Friday, February 28, 2014

Environment - "Coal Ash Spill Shows How a State Watchdog Was Defanged"

Updating this ILB post from Feb. 26th on the Duke coal ash spill in North Carolina, here are some quotes from the beginning of a lengthy story just posted online by Trip Gabriel of the NY Times:

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”

But when the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, those big changes were suddenly playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency.

The spill, which coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life, drew wide attention to a deal that the environmental department’s new leadership reached with Duke last year over pollution from coal ash ponds. It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds near drinking water. Environmental groups said the arrangement protected a powerful utility rather than the environment or the public.

Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.

The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based. And it has become yet another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called “job-killing” environmental regulations, which have received less notice.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 28, 2014 03:26 PM
Posted to Environment