The crimes of companies that mine and burn coal come with high costs that can’t always be measured in dollars and cents. But that doesn’t mean wrongdoers shouldn’t be held accountable or forced to pay the price.
Major polluters in our region are starting to see the consequences of their crimes catch up to them. Last month, Duke Energy announced it reached a $102 million plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve charges stemming from its coal ash pollution in North Carolina. Those fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke and its shareholders will take the hit.
But, it’s the communities surrounding Duke’s leaking coal ash sites that have been paying for years, in undrinkable water, air pollution, worry and concern, and illness. The problem might have been avoided had North Carolina’s regulators taken seriously the coal ash pollution or citizens’ urgings to address it.
A similarly troubling story is unfolding in eastern Kentucky, where citizen groups have faced off with the coal industry and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. There, too, regulators for years ignored corporate misconduct — this time in the form of blatantly falsified water quality reports that covered up pollution from mountaintop removal sites — leading Appalachian Voices and our partners to file suit.
These stories and many others in our region point to the ways that pollution negatively impacts communities at every stage of coal’s life cycle. But more importantly, they underscore the exceedingly important role citizens play in environmental protection.
When regulators don’t enforce essential protections, it’s no surprise that profit-driven companies feel free to disregard the law, cutting corners while paying little attention to the people their actions put at risk. And ultimately, citizens are forced to pay with priceless commodities like their health and well-being.
Citizen efforts to hold polluters accountable may not always end in a guilty plea, when we can say that justice has been served. But, we know when looking at the coal ash-lined banks of the Dan River or a polluted stream beneath a mountaintop removal mine in Kentucky that crimes have been committed, and that someone will have to pay.