This is the first sentence of N.C. DENRs mission statement: It is recognized that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources primary mission is to protect North Carolinas environment and natural resources.
And this is its last sentence: The outcome: That a collaborative stewardship among the citizens, government regulators and the business community will maintain and enhance North Carolinas environment and natural resources for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone living in or visiting our great state.
Seems pretty clear. But somewhere between the first and last sentence, the agency thats supposed to protect the environment has lost its way. Rather than responsibly safeguarding North Carolinas environment with tough enforcement, it admits to seeing polluters as partners. While regulators need to be reasonable, North Carolinas go out of their way to protect companies. Score one for corporations over canoes.
Duke Energys spill last week of some 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River north of Greensboro the third-largest such spill in the nations history could have been avoided by moving the ash years ago. Each time environmental advocates took legal action to force Duke to clean up its ash ponds, the state of North Carolina blocked them.
Associated Press reporters Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss revealed the extent of the problem in a story Sunday. Three times in the past year environmental groups were poised to sue Duke to force coal ash cleanups; all three times DENR stepped in at the last moment to slow them down.
Federal law requires groups to give the state 60 days notice before suing. The state can stop the case from proceeding by taking enforcement action. Advocates gave notice in January, March and June of 2013 that they intended to sue Duke over different coal ash locations. Each time, the state stepped in on or near the last day.
Pressured, the state filed its own suits, then proposed a settlement with Duke in which the company would be fined a paltry $99,111 over violations in Asheville and at Mountain Island Lake outside Charlotte but would not be required to move the ash.
AP reported that environmentalists have long regarded DENR as being too cozy with those it regulates, but believe things have worsened under Gov. Pat McCrory, a former longtime Duke employee. Duke and those closely affiliated with it have given at least $1.1 million to McCrorys campaign and groups supporting him since 2008, AP found.
Its a different story one state to the south. In South Carolina, the two biggest utilities, Santee Cooper and SCE&G, have agreed to excavate their ponds and bury the ash in dry, lined landfills.
Late Monday, DENR withdrew its proposed settlement, telling the judge it intended to conduct a comprehensive review of Dukes coal ash ponds. Its a promising sign that a settlement slanted so heavily toward Duke is on hold. But after years of attention to this issue, whats left to review? The disaster on the Dan makes starkly clear what needs to happen.
Duke says it plans to deal with its ash ponds. But when? Before or after another catastrophic breach? The company doesnt say.
Meanwhile, influential Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Tuesday that he intends to file legislation that forces Duke to dry out the ponds and move their waste.
Such an aggressive move would be a welcome change from the states performance to this point.
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