Fitzsimon File

Conflicting signals from McCrory Administration about coal ash ponds

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The recent headline in the News & Observer about Governor Pat McCrory’s latest statement about the devastating coal ash spill in the Dan River seemed very clear. “McCrory: move ash ponds.”

That’s the common sense action to protect the public health that environmental advocates have been urging the state to require Duke Energy to take for years, to move the toxic ash out of the 31 ponds where it is currently leaking into the groundwater and into lined landfills where spills and seepages are far less likely.

But is Governor McCrory really insisting that Duke Energy, where he worked for 28 years, move the coal ash out of the ponds? Despite the straightforward headline, it is still not clear.

The story and headline are based on a letter McCrory sent to Duke CEO Lynn Good on Tuesday in which he said “as a state we will not stand by while coal ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water.”

Sounds promising so far. McCrory goes on to say that “we have expressed our primary desire that coal ash ponds be moved away from these essential resources.”

Primary desire is a bit of an odd way to put it. McCrory could have said that he is directing Duke Energy to move the coal ash voluntarily and threaten to seek legislation to force them to if they refuse. Conceivably he could have also vowed to use his statutory authority to protect the public health to force the company to move the ash.

Instead he expressed his “primary desire” and also asked the Duke CEO for the company’s plans for the coal ash facilities and asked that they consider it a “request of an urgent nature.”

That seems like a bit of an understatement since the company and state environmental officials openly admit that all the ash ponds are leaking toxins into the groundwater. Urgent indeed.

And McCrory’s letter comes after a confusing set of statements from the Governor. He said ten days ago he wanted the coal ash moved out of the ponds, only to have his office back away from the comments. McCrory has also suggested the ponds should either be moved or capped—which would do nothing to stop the toxins from leaking.

The letter seems like his most definitive statement to date but the day after he wrote it, his own embattled Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources John Skvarla told the editorial board of the Southern Pines Pilot that it is “a complicated issue.”

That’s political-speak for not so fast. According to report in the Pilot, Skvarla cited likely problems getting landfills permitted–an odd concern from an administration that has boasted about expediting the environmental permitting process for businesses that need them to operate.

Skvarla listed a host of other complications with moving the coal ash out of the leaking ponds and said “it is not going to be a one-size-fits-all-solution,” a sentiment that McCrory himself expressed a few statements ago, before he wrote the somewhat promising letter about his primary desires.

But in this case one solution does fit all. All the coal ash ponds are leaking toxins into the groundwater and all of them need to be cleaned out and the ash moved to lined landfills.

It is not that complicated. So why are McCrory and the person he designated to head up the state’s environmental protection agency sending very different messages?

Have they talked about this recently? Is McCrory making tougher statements as part of public relations campaign to minimize the political damage of the spill while Skvarla is actually negotiating with Duke Energy to work out a weaker plan to leave some of the leaking coal ash in place?

Somebody needs to clear up the confusion. McCrory and Skvarla need to speak with one voice and deliver one unmistakable message. Move the coal ash as quickly as possible to lined landfills to stop the leaking. There is no other real solution.

Amy Adams with Appalachian Voices said at a NC Policy Watch luncheon this week that coal ash is not an environmental issue or a political issue but a human health issue.

She’s right and the Governor and his top environmental official need to start treating it that way.

Sec. Skvarla often talks about making his agency more customer friendly but he seems to be referring only to corporations like Duke Energy as the folks he has in mind.

He and Gov. McCrory need to remember that families who would rather not have high levels of arsenic and selenium in their rivers and streams and wells are customers too.