On February 2, 2014, a coal ash retention pond in Eden, North Carolina ruptured and spewed 39,000 tons of coal ash and contaminated water into the Dan River. The ash quickly traveled as much as 70 miles downstream.
The politics quickly grew as ugly as the polluted river.
Regulators have not communicated adequately. The state government has bickered and dithered. Now that the Environmental Protection Agency has called off any further cleanup efforts, environmental groups have responded with great fury and little accuracy.
In 2012, North Carolina Republicans won the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, the first time Republicans so completely controlled state government since Reconstruction.
Congress has been at a standstill because the Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the White House and the Senate.
One would think that with one-party control, it would be possible to move legislation from bill to law with much less rancor.
Unfortunately, House and Senate leaders in North Carolina get along no better than House and Senate leaders in Congress. Governor Pat McCrory has proven politically clumsy and tone deaf.
A bloated “short session” ended on August 20 with far too many issues left hanging until after the election. At least the legislature passed something about coal ash before leaving town. All the state’s coal ash ponds must be shut down by 2029. Details remain as murky as the river was in February.
No one is happy with all the compromises that had to be made to send any bill to the governor at all, but some legislation is better than none. And the chance of no legislation at all seemed all too real until the last minute. As Chicago Cubs fans say, wait till next year.
What can be uglier than that? Environmentalists who seem to be more interested in punishing Duke Energy than in honestly advocating for the river.
Duke Energy issued a press release on July 16, 2014 claiming that its cleanup work was complete. It includes the following paragraph:
All ash removal operations have been under the direction of the EPA and conducted in conjunction with state and other federal agencies. Based on the EPA’s criteria, there currently are no additional deposits to be removed from the river. Duke Energy, EPA and other agencies will continue monitoring and will remove additional coal ash and sediment deposits if identified and deemed necessary.
On July 17, the lead story in the (Greensboro) News & Record began, “Federal and state authorities reached a milestone recently in calling at least a temporary halt to coal ash removal efforts linked to this winter’s Dan River spill.”
The article quoted one of the on-scene coordinators from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at some length. It quoted a spokesman from Duke Energy only briefly. He simply said that the company remains committed to monitoring the river.
A different EPA official, quoted in a July 23 article in the same paper, said that regulators, not Duke Energy, decided to halt the cleanup. (Unfortunately, the EPA has not updated its web page on the spill since May.)
The news came as a rude shock to environmental activists. Duke cleaned up one large deposit near a dam in Danville, Virginia and some smaller sites. The total amount of ash removed from the river amounted to less than 10% of the spill.
How did environmental groups present the news on their sites? Several simply linked to other sites. Only a couple of them mentioned in various recent newspaper articles posted comments by their own staffers, but these articles are not encouraging.
Upon hearing the news that the cleanup was being halted, Pete Harrison, a staff attorney for the Waterkeeper’s Alliance, drove to Eden to make his own inspection. Two different pages were added to the organization’s web site on July 18. [Note: as of 2/16/2016 the Alliance has taken down these pages.]
“Duke Energy Claims Dan River Cleanup Complete” features a video of a television interview with Harrison. The prose introduction begins,
Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Riverkeepers, and local residents reacted with shock and outrage to Duke Energy’s announcement yesterday that the company had completed clean-up work on the Dan River following the massive February 5th coal ash spill in Eden, North Carolina.
“THIS IS WHAT TAKING RESPONSIBILITY LOOKS LIKE TO DUKE ENERGY.”
Is it too much to expect that the article would at least use the right date?
In the interview, Harrison waded into the water and pulled up several samples. Coal ash was buried beneath three inches of river sediment. A storm powerful enough to cause flooding could easily remove that cover and expose the ash below.
The lengthier “Claims of Dan River Clean-up by Duke Energy Proven False” doesn’t deliver sufficient evidence to verify the claim in the title. Apparently the group considers that Harrison’s samples provide proof.
But how large is the deposit? How wide across the river? How long along the current? How many similar patches are there? It will require much more than an afternoon’s work in front of a TV camera to provide answers to such basic questions.
The article doesn’t mention that the EPA halted the cleanup. It doesn’t mention the EPA at all. Instead, it decries “the arrogant announcement from Duke Energy” in an article more notable for its inflammatory rhetoric than for anything resembling responsible descriptive reporting. Did Harrison read anything beyond the press release?
In What Do Duke Energy and a Messy Teenager Have in Common? Amy Adams expresses her outrage in less inflammatory terms, and she does mention the EPA, but only in passing.
She reports that 35,000 tons (130 cubic yards) of ash remains in the river out of a total spill of 39,000 tons.
When a coal ash pond near Kingston, Tennessee ruptured in 2008, Adams writes, the Tennessee Valley Authority spent six years (sic, the sixth anniversary is this coming December) and cleaned up 90% of the spill. She wonders why Duke Energy can’t do the same.
The question requires some math. The massive Kingston spill ranks with the rupture of the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico as a major environmental disaster. A total of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and buried 300 acres of land. After 5 years, $1 billion cleanup tab and no regulations later, 500,000 cubic yards of ash remain.
Adams commends the Kingston cleanup, but fails to note that the remaining ash there is vastly more than the entire Dan River spill.
She formerly worked for the North Carolina Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) and left because she thought it was too friendly with industry. There is no doubt that she is correct. Negligent, overly casual regulation by both the DENR and EPA directly caused the Dan River spill.
Rightly or wrongly, state and federal regulators concluded that further cleanup of the Dan River would carry more environmental risk than benefit. It will take more than one lawyer with a hollow pipe to demonstrate that they were wrong.
Environmental watchdog groups like Waterkeeper’s Alliance and Appalachian Voices ought to be pushing regulators to take their duties more seriously. They ought to be pushing legislatures to pass better environmental laws. And yes, they ought to stand against industry lobbyists who prefer the current casual regulatory environment.
Unfortunately, these two groups seem to be too exclusively interested in scoring rhetorical points. Their decision to direct all of their criticism to Duke Energy and none to the regulators overseeing the project demonstrates excessive anti-corporate bias.
It doesn’t inspire confidence when major environmental groups haven’t done their work any more carefully than industry and regulators have.