It’s probably getting tough for most people to keep up with all the court cases, settlements, and fines surrounding coal ash contamination at sites across North Carolina owned by Duke Energy. Every week seems to bring another proceeding or ruling or lawsuit.
Governor Pat McCrory and his top environmental officials are not only counting on the confusion to mislead the public they are adding to it, hoping that people fail to grasp the theme running through all the coal ash cases, that this administration continues to refuse to enforce the law and protect the state’s water quality that’s being damaged by McCrory’s former longtime employer.
This week U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs not only refused a request by Duke Energy to dismiss a lawsuit by environmental groups against the company for its leaking coal ash pit near the Yadkin River, she also raised questions about how diligently state officials were working to force the company to clean up the pollution at the site.
The judge’s harsh words come just a couple of weeks after a coalition of environmental groups filed a separate lawsuit to stop a sweetheart deal between the state and Duke Energy in response to a $25 million fine the state initially imposed with great fanfare on the utility for coal ash contamination at its Sutton Lake coal ash site near Wilmington.
Duke appealed the fine and in September the McCrory Administration and the company agreed on a settlement that lowered the fine to $7 million for contamination at all 14 of the coal ash sites, not just the Sutton Lake location.
The settlement also does not require the company to do anything it had not already promised to do and in effect ends real enforcement of pollution laws at the coal ash sites and may provide immunity for violations in the future.
That’s quite a sweeping capitulation to the company that was merely appealing one fine in one case affecting one area of coal ash pollution.
Lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center called the settlement “an amazing midnight deal” that “twisted a simple penalty dispute into a bad settlement that reneges on its promise to clean up every leaking coal ash pit across North Carolina.”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment and it’s not the first time the McCrory Administration has gone out of its way to protect the company.
Before the massive Dan River coal ash spill early in 2014, the McCrory Administration actually sued Duke Energy over coal ash, a fact McCrory likes to cite as evidence that he’s tough on his former company when he needs to be.
What McCrory generally does not mention is that the lawsuit came after citizen groups first sued Duke to stop leaks from coal ash ponds. McCrory’s environmental agency took over the lawsuits and then reached a settlement with the company that included a paltry $99,000 fine but no requirement that Duke take specific actions to clean up the coal ash.
Then came the Dan River spill though not much has changed about the attitude of the administration since then judging by the absurd settlement in the Sutton Lake case.
A top McCrory official did weigh in recently to say none of this was McCrory’s fault, blaming the previous administration for the current coal ash issues.
That prompted Frank Holleman with SELC to correctly diagnose the problem with McCrory and his top appointees in an interview with News and Views, the radio show produced by N.C. Watch.
“They have constantly viewed it as a matter of politics and posturing instead of a matter of protecting the public interest and protecting our clean water,” Holleman said.
He went on to add that the best politics in this case is good public policy, protecting the state’s water quality and holding Duke Energy accountable for threatening it.
There’s a thought, just do the right thing, though it’s hard to think the current administration will ever be up to it.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.