Raleigh was abuzz this week with the decision by Governor Pat McCrory to let the coal ash legislation passed by the General Assembly this summer become law without his signature.
McCrory told a television interviewer a couple of weeks ago that he was planning to sign the bill despite reservations about the new coal ash commission it creates with legislative leaders making the majority of the appointments.
This week McCrory said he was still upset about the commission he believes infringes on the power of the executive branch of government. He plans to ask the N.C Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of the commission and may file a lawsuit. But he decided not to sign or veto the legislation, just let it become law.
That was most of the discussion about the coal ash bill this week, whether or not McCrory would sign it.
While the governor was mulling over what to do about which politician makes which appointment to a new political board, all 33 coal ash ponds at 14 sites in North Carolina continued to leak contaminants into the soil and groundwater.
No one disputes that the ponds are leaking, not state regulators, not Duke Energy, and certainly not people who live in communities where the toxins are seeping into the ground.
The legislation passed by the General Assembly that legislative leaders and their supporters tout as the “toughest coal ash law in the country” would require Duke Energy to remove the coal ash from only four of the 14 sites by 2019 and put it in lined landfills away from water supplies.
The fate of the other ten sites and the communities near them will be left up to the McCrory Administration’s weakened Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the new commission that legislative leaders and/or McCrory will ultimately appoint.
The cost of cleaning up any of the sites may well be passed on to families across North Carolina. Duke has promised to pick up the tab only for cleaning up the spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February.
Legislative leaders and McCrory resisted calls to require Duke and its shareholders to foot the bill for cleaning up all the leaking ponds. That decision will be made by the N.C. Utilities Commission, a panel appointed by the governor.
That’s hardly reassuring. McCrory released a video announcement with the press release that he was allowing the bill to become law without his signature. In it he made all sorts of preposterous claims about how vigilant his administration has been in regulating coal ash even before the Dan River disaster.
He cited a lawsuit filed against Duke Energy by the state before the spill. That is true. After citizen groups sued Duke Energy to stop the leaks from the ash ponds, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources intervened, taking over the lawsuits and then reaching a settlement with the company that included a paltry $99,000 fine but no requirement that Duke take specific actions to clean up the coal ash.
That’s the sort of regulatory zeal McCrory is bragging about. And he now is furious about who will appoint whom to a political commission while the ponds continue to leak and Duke Energy has to move the toxic ash out of only four of them in the next five years.
The best way to understand how absurd that is comes from Frank Holleman with the Southern Environment Law Center in a recent interview on News and Views, the radio show produced by N.C. Policy Watch.
“Let’s assume somebody came to you and said I’ve got a great idea. I want to dig a large earthen pit next to your communities’ river, right upstream from your drinking water intake. I want to fill it with millions of industrial waste, and leave it unlined….then I am going to fill it with water which allows those substances to mobilize into the groundwater…and to hold it back from your river and your drinking water source, I am just going to build an earthen dyke that leaks. You’d be laughed out of the room.”
But that is exactly what is happening at 14 sites across North Carolina and what will continue to happen at 10 sites after 2019.
The problem is not the new coal ash commission. The problem is the leaking toxic ash ponds that the administration should force Duke Energy to clean up and move away from our water supplies, sooner rather than later.