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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Environment - The Duke coal ash spills in North Carolina and the West Virginia water contamination

While many have been focusing on the same-sex marriage issues, major environmental disasters have been happening in two eastern states known for their pushback against government regulation. The states are West Virginia, home of mountain top mining, and North Carolina, home of many large, intensive hog and poultry operations, as well more than a dozen large coal ash lagoons. [ILB: Both North Carolina and Indiana have a number of Duke coal-ash ponds/lagoon.]

Duke Energy had a massive coal ash spill in North Carolina that began on Feb. 2nd. As Michael Biesecker reported in this Feb. 19th AP story:

On Feb. 2, a pipe running under a coal ash pond collapsed at Duke's Dan River Steam Station, spilling up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water. The spill coated the bottom of the Dan River, near the Virginia border, with toxic ash up to 70 miles downstream.

State environmental Sec. John Skvarla refused to answer Wednesday when asked at a media briefing if he had been served with a subpoena. His agency also declined to say whether it had received other subpoenas it had not yet made public.

Skvarla was appointed last year by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked for Duke Energy for more than 28 years. Josh Ellis, McCrory's spokesman, confirmed the governor had not been subpoenaed.

The 20 subpoenas disclosed by the state environmental agency were issued on or since Feb. 11. They follow two Feb. 10 subpoenas, which were issued the day after a story by The Associated Press raised questions about a proposed deal between state officials and Duke that would have fined Duke $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater contamination at two facilities. * * *

When citizen groups tried to use the U.S. Clean Water Act to sue Duke in federal court last year, the state agency intervened three times to use its authority to issue violations over the pollution. The citizens groups opposed the state's deal, saying it shielded the company from far harsher penalties it might have faced in federal court had the state not intervened.

After negotiating with the company's lawyers behind closed doors, the state proposed a settlement that would allow Duke to settle violations at facilities near Asheville and Charlotte for $99,111. That deal, which the state put on hold the day after the AP reported on it, included no requirement that Duke clean up its pollution.

Skvarla said he briefed McCrory before making the decision to intervene, but that he never discussed the terms of the deal with the governor. Environmental groups have suggested Skvarla shepherded a "sweetheart deal" with the governor's former employer to shield Duke from harsher penalties it might have faced had the citizens been allowed to sue in federal court.

Since his first unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After his successful 2012 campaign and subsequent inauguration, McCrory disclosed on state ethics forms that his investment portfolio includes holdings of Duke stock valued in excess of $10,000. He is not legally obligated to reveal the specific amount and has refused to do so voluntarily.

The governor said last week he sees no conflict of interests between his role as elected official and remaining a shareholder in the company regulated by his appointees.

There have been daily stories about the spill since it happened in early Feb., focusing on the federal investigation, the Governor's connections with Duke, and the State's interventions cutting off citizen suits.The NY Times had a Feb. 16th editorial headed "Regulatory Favoritism in North Carolina" that began:
North Carolina citizens have good reason to wonder just whom their environmental regulators are trying to protect. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has engaged in a series of maneuvers that seem designed to protect the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, from paying big fines for water pollution from coal ash ponds and meeting reasonable requirements that it move toxic coal ash to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes used for drinking water and recreation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country — having heard of the damaging North Carolina coal ash spill this month — must be wondering why the federal government has yet to move against a serious pollution problem it has known about for years.

One answer is the political power of the utilities. In North Carolina, a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, tried three times over the past year to sue Duke Energy in federal court for violating the Clean Water Act, only to be pre-empted by the state regulatory agency, which asserted its authority to protect the public through enforcement actions in state courts. Once in control of the litigation, the state regulators quickly proposed a sweetheart settlement of suits against two Duke Energy plants. It would have imposed total fines and costs of about $99,000, a pittance for a company with operating revenues of $19.6 billion in 2012, plus a cleanup plan riddled with loopholes.

Critics blamed the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who had worked at Duke Energy for 29 years, and the businessman he appointed to head the environmental department, John Skvarla. Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the Dan River spill and issued subpoenas for the records of Duke Energy and the environmental department.

The third suit was still pending when coal ash spilled on Feb. 2 into the Dan River, near the Virginia border, through a ruptured pipe at another Duke Energy plant that is no longer in use.

A chemical spill in West Virginia in January continues to have repercussions. A Jan. 16th editorial in the NY Times begins:
The chemical spill that cut off water to more than 300,000 people in West Virginia for several days has exposed serious defects in state and federal environmental protections that allow many facilities and chemicals to escape scrutiny.

Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly how an estimated 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, leaked from a storage facility into the Elk River. But state and federal agencies clearly should have done more to limit the risks. For starters, the state failed to adequately inspect how the facility stored chemicals, though it did send inspectors there to check on air quality. The chemicals were kept in tanks on the riverbank, upstream from a large water-treatment plant that supplies Charleston.

The spill is the third major chemical accident in the region in five years. State lawmakers and regulators in West Virginia have a long history of coddling the coal and chemical industries, which dominate the state’s economy. According to a 2009 investigation by The Times, companies that pollute state waters are rarely fined. And state officials have so far ignored a 2011 proposal from the federal Chemical Safety Board urging new rules to prevent industrial accidents and spills. That recommendation came after an explosion at a chemical plant near Charleston that killed two people in 2008.

The Washington Post had a good story on Jan. 21st headed "Five big questions about the massive chemical spill in West Virginia."

From a Feb. 25th story by Katie Valentine in Thin Progress, headed "More Than 60 West Virginia Facilities Could Contaminate The Elk River’s Water Supply, Report Finds," some quotes:

The leak from a Freedom Industries chemical storage facility in West Virginia may now be contained, but according to a new report, that plant was just one of many potential sources of pollution along the Elk River, which supplies water to 300,000 West Virginians.

The report, published by West Virginia’s Downstream Strategies, found that there are 62 facilities along the Elk River that are “potential significant contaminant sources” (PSCSs) — facilities that, if they experience a spill, would contaminate the Elk River’s water supply. * * *

The report isn’t the only one to call for tougher regulations on the chemical and coal industries in West Virginia. A recent poll released by the Sierra Club found that most West Virginians polled think the January spill should serve as a “wake up call” for the state to re-evaluate its environmental laws. The poll surveyed 504 registered voters in the state and found that 73 percent of them thought that “West Virginia has paid too little attention to addressing threats to air and water,” and that 69 percent of them thought disasters like the Elk River spill were likely to occur in the future unless the state takes action to prevent them. The poll also found that 97 percent of respondents would support a proposal that would require facilities that could contaminate water supplies to be inspected regularly.

And though West Virginians are often painted as staunch coal supporters, 40 percent of respondents said the coal industry bears “a lot or some” of responsibility for the spill, and 65 percent said the coal industry bears a lot or some responsibility for the overall contamination of West Virginia’s air and water.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 26, 2014 02:16 PM
Posted to Environment