Last week, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory zig-zagged his way close to the right stand on Duke Energy’s massive spill that dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River north of Greensboro. But he still missed the mark.
Last Monday at N.C. A&T University, he said Duke Energy should respond to the spill by “moving ash ponds so they don’t cause long-term issues with our water anywhere in North Carolina, and frankly with our neighboring states.”
By Tuesday afternoon, his office was “clarifying” that the governor’s stand on moving Duke’s storage ponds was only “one option that’s available.”
Then on Wednesday, Communications Director Josh Ellis was saying that “Gov. McCrory believes that moving the coal ash ponds is the best option... However, there may be some cases in which that option may not be environmentally sound.”
On Saturday, during a break in the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, McCrory got this right: He said the ash should be placed in lined facilities. But about the existing ash ponds, he said, “I hope in most cases we can move the pond... I’m not an engineer or a scientist, but that would be hopefully the best option.”
Here’s our hope. We hope the governor will stop equivocating on this matter. He and his Department of Environment and Natural Resources must forcefully declare that Duke Energy do what South Carolina’s biggest utilities have already agreed to do there – excavate the ponds and bury the ash in dry, lined landfills.
The state has badly abdicated its responsibility on this matter. The spill on the Dan – the third largest such spill in the nation’s history – could have been avoided by moving the ash years ago.
This newspaper has reported on potential environmental dangers of coal ash and storage ponds since at least 2008. On Sunday, a story detailed years of lax regulatory oversight of Duke’s ash lagoons.
Duke Energy has apologized for the Feb. 2 spill and pledged to clean it up. Officials say they are reviewing the feasibility of shutting down the lagoons.
Apology accepted. But the state needs to move past Duke reviewing the feasibility of a shutdown. As Robert Smith, former state Assistant Secretary for Environment, said in Sunday’s story: “There are thousands of sites with contaminated groundwater in the state. The response to that is to ask the responsible party to remove the source of the contamination. Duke has not been told to remove the source of pollution.”
Duke should be. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said he is drafting legislation to force Duke to dry out all the ponds and move the ash to another kind of storage site, possibly a hazardous waste landfill.
McCrory and DENR should take the same aggressive approach.
Federal authorities have launched a criminal probe into the spill and the relationship between Duke and DENR. That’s in part because of complaints from environmental groups that the state repeatedly intervened to protect Duke from lawsuits under the Clean Water Act. McCrory, who worked for Duke, and DENR leaders deny a cozy relationship. But a paltry fine against the utility for violations – a settlement withdrawn after this month’s spill – has raised legitimate questions.
It’s time for McCrory and DENR officials to state unequivocally that the spill is unacceptable, that the ponds must be moved, and that the state will provide the oversight that’s needed so this will be unlikely to happen again.
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