On Tuesday, Roy Cooper announced multiple senior staff hires and cabinet appointments, including his choice to lead the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. In a statement, Cooper said his pick for the agency, Michael Regan, understands that “protecting state resources is vital to our state’s health and economic climate.”
Regan, an air quality expert and North Carolina native, brings decades of experience to the position, serving at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clinton and Bush administrations. From 2008 to 2016, he was the senior southeastern director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.
During a press conference, Regan identified the need to develop greater transparency at DEQ and work with all stakeholders so they are “operating with pretty much similar information,” and said his first priority is meeting with veteran agency staff to gather feedback.
That alone could signal a shift from the prior DEQ leadership’s approach to public engagement on environmental issues, especially as it relates to coal ash management and drinking water quality. Environmental advocacy groups welcomed Regan’s appointment after years of calling for a return to science-based decision-making at the department.
Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams, a former DEQ regional supervisor, penned an op-ed for the News & Observer that was published a few days after the election’s outcome was finally clear.
“Under Gov. Pat McCrory, the agency scandalously cast doubt on science and made pariahs out of scientists and career public servants,” Adams wrote. “Leadership second-guessed its own professional staff’s reports, interfered with the recommendations of experts in other departments and knowingly spoke half-truths to the public about the safety of their well water results.
“We need men and women of science at the DEQ who are fact-minded, heart-guided and human-centered. We need people who are up to the task of rebuilding the department and regaining the public’s trust.”
A few days after her’s op-ed was published, Cooper spokesperson Ken Eudy said that restoring the credibility of DEQ was a top priority for the incoming administration. According to Brian Buzby, the executive director of the N.C. Conservation Network, Regan fits the bill.
“This choice is a clear signal from Gov. Cooper that his administration intends to restore a philosophy of transparency, integrity and sound science,” Buzby said in a statement.
Because of a new state law hastily passed by the legislature and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory in the final days of his administration, Regan and other cabinet-level appointees are now subject to confirmation by the state Senate. A judge recently blocked a law passed during the special session that restructures county and state boards of elections, and Cooper has indicated more legal challenges to new laws could be coming.
The new governor brushed off questions about whether Regan’s background would be an obstacle to his confirmation by an oppositional and often anti-environmental legislature, saying it was important “to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions.”
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.
Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.
The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.
Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.
Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.
While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.
Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.
At the 11th hour, a vengeful display of power in Raleigh
North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.
You probably heard that last week North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, conceded to his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper. It was a close race that dragged on for nearly a month after election day.
Upon conceding, Gov. McCrory told North Carolinians with a grin that “we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper.”
But it was widely rumored and is now abundantly clear that members of McCrory’s party in the state legislature had something else in mind. Last night, lawmakers set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.
As has become traditional in North Carolina politics, lawmakers wove a deliberately tangled web. Over the weekend, Gov. McCrory called a special session ostensibly for the purpose of passing a recovery bill for communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. But the agenda wasn’t restricted only to funding recovery efforts and it left room for “any other matters” legislators wanted to consider.
After days of deflecting questions and refusing to explain their priorities for the “emergency session,” Republicans introduced a slew of bills that would make sweeping changes and dramatically shift the balance of power away from the governor.
For instance, a House bill would alter Governor-elect Cooper’s ability to appoint the heads of departments such as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by requiring the state Senate to confirm cabinet members. A bill in the Senate would give more power to the Republican-majority state Court of Appeals and make it less likely for legal challenges on environmental and any number of other issues to reach the more Democratic-friendly state Supreme Court.
Other legislation relates more directly to environmental protections. A 43-page regulatory reform bill would change rules governing riparian buffers, vehicle emissions inspections and stormwater control measures.
Reminiscent of the legislature’s fast-tracked passage of House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill,” the power grab is receiving national attention (see here and here). It’s also causing backlash from North Carolinians and hundreds have crowded the state capitol in Raleigh to protest, among them residents that suffered the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.
“The politicians in Raleigh are treating flood victims like political pawns,” Michelle Herring of Kinston told Progress NC Action. “If this special session was supposed to be about disaster relief, and relief funding has already been agreed to, then why are we still here?”
In an editorial this morning, the Charlotte Observer editorial board described the state leaders’ actions as both “breathtaking and hardly surprising” and defined by an “all-too-familiar disrespect for democracy.”
Legislators plan to start voting on bills at 2:30 p.m. today. There’s still time to call your representatives. Let them know you’re watching and that North Carolinians are tired of their shady, undemocratic dealmaking.
Time is quickly running out for Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act. Photo by Ann Smith, special to the UMW Journal
America owes a debt to the nation’s coal miners. Not just a debt of gratitude, but a financial debt as well.
The good news is that there is a bill in Congress that would allow this country to begin to pay that debt: the Miners Protection Act. The bad news is that the opportunity to pass the bill is quickly slipping away.
The Miners Protection Act would provide retired members of the United Mine Workers of America the pensions they’ve been promised and the health benefits many of them and their families desperately need. There is broad bipartisan support for the bill — the Senate Finance Committee passed the Miners Protection Act earlier this year by a whopping 18 to 8 margin.
But Congress is on the verge of passing a budget that would leave out pensions altogether, and only provide a band-aid solution for the health benefits. As UMWA president Cecil Roberts explains:
The inclusion of a mere four months of spending on health care benefits for retired miners and widows is a slap in the face to all 22,000 of them who desperately need their health care next month, next year and for the rest of their lives.
Further, the complete exclusion of any language to provide help for the pensions of 120,000 current and future retirees puts America’s coalfield communities on a glide path to deeper economic disaster.
The miners are calling on “any and all allies” to join them in fighting for the pensions and health benefits they have earned. We hope you will join us in becoming one of those allies.
Please call your senator today and tell them that you support the Miners Protection Act, and that they need to pass it before Congress goes on recess. Tell them it is the right thing to do, and going home without doing it is totally unacceptable.
North Carolina – Richard Burr (202) 224-3154 Note: Sen. Burr is a cosponsor of the bill. We need him to show his support by insisting the entire bill passes before he goes home.
Kentucky – Mitch McConnell (202) 224-2541 Note: He is failing the miners by not working to secure their pensions. He needs to support the entire bill and bring it up for a vote before he goes home.
West Virginia – Shelley Capito (202) 224-6472 Note: Sen. Capito is a cosponsor of the bill. She needs to keep fighting, and do everything she can to get this entire bill passed before she goes home.
Tennessee – Bob Corker (202) 224-3344 Note: Sen. Corker needs to show support for the miners. It’s the right thing to do, and he should help get the entire bill passed before he goes home.
Virginia – Tim Kaine (202) 224-4024 Note: Sen. Kaine is a cosponsor of the bill. He needs to do everything he can to make sure the miners get their pensions before he goes home.
Rest of the country – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (202) 224-2541 Note: He is failing the miners by not working to secure their pensions. He needs to support the entire bill and bring it up for a vote before he goes home.
In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust
North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov
North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”
The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.
Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.
Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.
During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”
News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.
On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”
Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.
He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.
Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:
“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”
So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.
On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.
By Hannah Petersen
In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.
Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.
For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.
Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.
A New Coal Ash Law
The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.
“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.
In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.
The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.
“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”
“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”
“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.
Duke’s request to block release of deposition
The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.
In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.
State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.
“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”
“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”
Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.
To the Members of the N.C. General Assembly:
Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February 2014, seldom has a day passed in North Carolina when coal ash is not in the news; the disposition of coal ash in North Carolina is of vital importance to public health and the environment. Our communities are being profoundly impacted: some of us already living day to day with contaminated water and air, and others are facing new impacts in areas which have been targeted for the disposal of coal ash.
During the summer of 2015, North Carolina communities previously impacted by coal ash, and those currently dealing with new coal ash landfills, joined together with a shared vision and common goal to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Believing that the coal ash emergency in North Carolina deserves a real, comprehensive solution that will protect all communities, we crafted the ACT Against Coal Ash unifying principles. A few of the key principles are below, and the full document can be found here.
Please don’t let this short session close without taking action to assure that communities near coal ash sites have safe replacement water supplies as soon as possible, that communities facing new coal ash landfills are protected and that cleanups move forward quickly, with no “capping in place.”
We believe that all people, regardless of race and socio-economic class, have a right to healthy communities, clean water, clean air, and safe food and soil.
We believe that living in close proximity to coal ash infringes on these basic rights.
We demand a transparent process to coal ash cleanup in which Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers are open and honest about the health effects of chemicals found in coal ash, and any plans for disposal or recycling coal ash.
We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to urgently respond to the need to test any water supply well that may have been contaminated by coal ash, not just those within 1,000 feet. The tests must be paid for by Duke and performed by an independent lab using the most sensitive and comprehensive testing methods.
We call on N.C. decision makers to require Duke Energy to pay for independent oversight of the coal ash cleanup process, independent analysis of current coal ash contamination, research by public and private entities to find the best solutions to this problem, and random and unannounced inspections of the coal ash sites by state regulators.
We demand that N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy prioritize worker safety during all phases of coal ash cleanup and site remediation.
We call on N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy to strive for a permanent solution to coal ash that prioritizes community safety. We demand that any coal ash that cannot be safely recycled or processed be stored on Duke Energy property with the company maintaining liability. We will not accept dumping of the ash in other communities or capping-in-place as solutions. We demand that the ash be urgently isolated from ground and surface water at all locations.
We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to invest in a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and responsible energy future for N.C. that supports the growth of solar, wind energy, and energy efficiency programs, and moves away from coal, natural gas, and other harmful and expensive methods of generating power that poison communities and affect North Carolinians’ quality of life.
As our elected representatives, you have the opportunity — and responsibility — to do what is right for the residents of North Carolina. We call on the General Assembly to make sure no community is left to suffer from coal ash now, or in the future.
Bobby Jones, representing Down East Coal Ash Coalition, Goldsboro
Caroline Armijo, representing Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, Belews Creek
Roger Hollis, representing residents near Cliffside / Rogers Energy Complex
Debbie Baker and Amy Brown, representing neighbors of Allen Steam Station
Jeri Cruz-Segarra, representing resident near Asheville Steam Station
John Wagner and Judy Hogan, representing Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps
Deborah B. Graham, representing neighbors of Buck Steam Station
A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.
UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.
On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.
Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.
But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.
DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.
“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.
Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found that the commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.
Citizens waitiing for clean water
On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.
The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.
Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”
Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.
“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”
While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.
“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”
Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.
But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.
“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”
When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”
“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”
Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.
Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.
Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.
The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.
From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.
These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.
After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.
As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.
The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.
What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.
DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.
Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.
Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.
Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.
At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.
But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.
In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.
When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:
The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.
In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”
Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.
Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.
Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).
“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”
In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”
This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.
But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:
The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.
Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.
It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.
In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.
Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:
It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.
Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.