Duke’s coal ash disaster shows why North Carolina needs an environmental policy 180
Sometimes, it’s amazing what a dramatic impact the sustained application of large amounts of time and money can make when it comes to the natural environment.
No, this isn’t a reference to the clean-up of polluted sites – though time and money certainly can make a huge difference when it comes to addressing pollution problems. In this case, the reference is to the debate over the environment itself and the pernicious way in which large corporations and their hired helpers in elected office and conservative “think” tanks have hijacked it in recent decades.
North Carolina is a prime example. To say that the health of the natural environment in this state is increasingly fragile would be a huge understatement. Urban sprawl is gobbling up farm and forest land at a ferocious rate, while rapidly increasing runoff from those urban areas  continues to degrade numerous lakes, streams and rivers. Mountain forests suffer mightily from the ravages of air pollution  and the state’s gorgeous coastline continues to degrade under the twin pressures of breakneck development and rising seas. Meanwhile, ever-more-sprawling repositories for the solid waste of millions of humans  and the sewage of millions of animals continue to despoil the land, air and water.
In such a situation, you’d think citizens would be crying out for action to preserve and protect what’s left of their (and their children’s) birthright. Especially in a state whose very identity is so closely tied to its natural beauty, such policies would seem a “no-brainer.”
Unfortunately, as recent elections and policy debates have made painfully clear, the opposite is actually the case. Fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of easy money from giant polluters – especially in the carbon fuels industry – pollution apologists and propagandists have actually succeeded in making environmental advocates the “bad guys.”
This diabolical state of affairs reached its nadir over the past couple of years with the rise of a new group of political leaders who actually premised their campaigns for office and leadership on a pledge to increase pollution – through fracking, offshore oil and gas drilling and a commitment to roll back myriad environmental protection rules.
And so here we are in 2014 — at a moment of profound local and global environmental crisis — literally considering the abolition of vast swaths of the state’s environmental regulatory framework. Under a bill passed by the 2013 General Assembly and signed into law by Governor McCrory , essentially every state environmental regulation not specifically required by the federal government is subject to review and possible repeal by an appointed commission over the coming years. It is a stunning state of affairs.
The coal ash crisis
While the real world impact of such a situation of malevolent neglect is fast becoming evident all around us, there is perhaps no better example than the state’s more than two dozen coal ash dumps and “ponds.”
As noted in the space nearly four years ago in a column highlighting the then-tepid response of the Perdue administration,  North Carolina is one of the nation’s most endangered states when it comes to coal ash (also referred to as “fly ash”) – the waste that’s left over after burning coal to make electricity. The state is home to millions of tons of the poisonous stuff – much of it perched precariously in unlined depressions immediately adjacent to important sources of fresh water.
This too-long ignored reality came home to roost in recent days with the horrific spill in the town of Eden where more than 80,000 tons of sludge in a Duke Energy dump poured into the Dan River . Though officials are only just beginning to assess the near and long-term impact on the river and the people and communities nearby, there can be little doubt that it won’t be good. As was also noted in the 2010 article, coal ash typically contains a host of incredibly noxious chemicals – arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and other toxics – that cause cancer and brain damage in humans.
To their at least initial and minimal credit, state political leaders are making some noises about responding to the problem. State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – whose district actually includes the Eden dump – finally got around to visiting the site several days after the spill and issuing a call for a legislative inquiry. Gov. McCrory (a former 23-year Duke Energy employee) and other leading state lawmakers  are also making noises about the need for state action.
How far the leaders are really willing to go, however, in pushing for meaningfully tougher laws and demanding real sacrifice from executives and shareholders in Duke Energy remains a huge question. As has been noted on multiple occasions of late in the space , the McCrory administration has been notably unenthusiastic in its approach to the work of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – except perhaps for pursuing its objective of downsizing the agency and making polluters (rather than the public and its wellbeing) its main “customers.”
Moreover, if politicians are looking to Duke Energy for signals as to what to do (as is ordinarily the case with such matters involving large political patrons), concerned citizens shouldn’t hold their breath. At a public hearing in the Virginia border town of Danville last night , Duke representatives weren’t in any mood to make any promises or even admit any real fault – either with respect to the Eden emergency or any of their other coal ash sites.
And while there have been some encouraging signals at the federal level on coal ash in recent days , this has taken years and years of aggressive advocacy by environmental groups, a spill in Tennessee that dwarfed the Dan River mess and the realization that the nation is producing something on the order of 140 million tons of the stuff every year – the equivalent of 1,400 aircraft carriers!
Where from here?
Let’s hope fervently that it doesn’t take the kind of monumental effort that’s been necessary at the national level (or still more giant environmental crises) in order to get some real action on the problem here in North Carolina. Environmental advocates have already advanced practical solutions that could and should be put into place by state regulators and Duke in the very near future. All that’s been lacking is the will.
Perhaps even more importantly, let’s also hope that the Duke disaster sends a message loud and clear to the state’s political leaders that it’s time to stop kowtowing to the Koch Brothers, other carbon industry bullies and the misguided ideologues they fund to spout the “all is well” mantra on dozens of other issues – be it climate change, land use, sea-level rise, fracking, the Jordan Lake rules or the state’s burgeoning landfill problem.
While it’s undoubtedly true that regulators and activists have occasionally made poor choices by lifting bureaucratic form over substance when it comes the North Carolina’s natural environment, there is simply no denying – try as some might – that the state’s preeminent problem in this area is a lack of aggressive public action.
On February 27 in Raleigh, NC Policy Watch will host a very special Crucial Conversation luncheon on the recent coal ash disaster and its implications for state environmental policy with two recognized experts: former state environmental regulator and current Appalachian Voices advocate Amy Adams and State Representative Pricey Harrison. We hope you can join us – click here for more information .