With the finesse of a bulldozer, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla plowed through a Feb. 19 press briefing on coal ash and the Dan River coal ash spill, hurrying from the room after less than an hour with the protests of reporters and their unanswered questions echoing behind him.
While the public has been eager for DENR to discuss their plans to prevent future coal ash disasters, Skvarla instead spent the majority of his time striking back at allegations that his agency has not done enough to prevent such disasters from occurring.
Since the Feb. 2 collapse of a stormwater pipe at Duke Energy’s retired coal plant in Eden, N.C., DENR has been making national headlines. The 39,000 tons of toxic ash that have coated more than 70 miles of the Dan River mark the spill as the third largest incident in U.S. history. Now, the media spotlight has brightened as both Duke Energy and NCDENR have been called to testify before a federal grand jury in March.
Coal ash, the byproduct of coal burned to produce electricity, contains an ugly lineup of contaminants that include arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. Often stored in unlined pits, the potential for coal ash to mingle with ground and surface water is not just speculation — it’s a time-tested reality.
Yet according to Skvarla, the wisdom of cleaning up leaking coal ash ponds is a matter of debate. Lamenting that environmentalists keep pushing a “one-size-fits-all” option of digging up the leaking coal ash ponds and moving the waste to lined and covered landfills, Skvarla went on to insist that, “There are environmental scientists who say that’s the worst thing that can happen to the environment. The answer is, nobody knows at this point.”
In truth, nobody knows what uncertainty Skvarla was talking about. NCDENR has been unable to provide any scientific evidence backing up Skvarla’s claim that moving coal ash to lined landfills would damage the environment. When asked if such studies exist during an interview with WRAL reporters, Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, was dumbfounded.
“Of course not,” he said. “If there is evidence of groundwater contamination and surface water contamination at the coal ash pond, then leaving it as-is obviously isn’t an option if the environment is something you care about. You don’t need to be Joe Chemist to figure that out.”
Skvarla is no stranger to making claims that are downright bizarre. In a statement that seemed to border on delusional, Skvarla aligned himself with the very same groups he had previously accused of inventing environmental problems in order to initiate lawsuits and pad their coffers.
“Somehow or another this perception has been created that we are adversaries to the citizens groups when in fact we are all on the same side of the table,” Skvarla claimed at the press conference. “We are partners. We all have the same outcome in mind.”
Despite being “partners,” no members of the citizens groups have been invited to join discussions with NCDENR. In fact, in a statement to Indy Week’s news blog, a spokesperson from the Southern Environmental Law Center — which represents the various citizen and environmental groups in their suit against Duke Energy — confirmed that the agency has tried to block their participation every step of the way.
Even with the pressure mounting on NCDENR to address the continued threat of haphazardly stored coal ash, the agency is insisting that they need more time to review just how dangerous the situation really is. Responding to allegations that Duke and NCDENR have known for years about the extent and hazard of coal ash contamination, Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, assured the press that while this is true, Duke has not received any special treatment.
Sidestepping the point about health concerns entirely, Reeder stated that “Duke is not the only permittee in North Carolina that has contaminated groundwater. We have these sites all throughout the state.” It’s not clear whether Reeder expected the public to be relieved upon hearing that NCDENR has been just as lax with every company polluting groundwater in North Carolina. What is clear is that the time for debating the safety of coal ash is long over — when it comes to clean water and a safe environment, NCDENR needs to realize that “one-size-fits-all” is the right fit for everyone.