When you're already screwing things up, why not go for broke? That could be the thinking behind the latest coal ash-related decision at the N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources. Or maybe thinking doesn't have much to do with it. As WRAL in Raleigh reported, DENR officials told a Superior Court judge that they may reinstate, and even expand, the coal-ash "settlement," or consent order, the agency reached with Duke Energy over coal ash spills at two sites. DENR, you may remember, had withdrawn the consent order shortly after the Feb. 2 Dan River coal-ash debacle. The order would have fined Duke a measly $99,000 and allowed the utility to decide when and how to handle its coal-ash ponds; the order was announced just in time to legally bar environmental groups from suing Duke. That weak slap on the wrist is believed to be the impetus for a federal investigation, announced last week, into whether DENR and Duke colluded in order to keep costly lawsuits by environmentalists at bay.
So why would DENR want to reinstate the consent order? Lawyers for DENR say the agency may add new provisions to the order, or may "expand the overall scope of the Consent Order to include additional facilities." One could interpret DENR's explanation to mean it will add more penalties to the order; or it could mean that DENR plans to fold all 14 Duke-owned coal ash ponds into the agreement, which could legally reduce the likelihood of Duke having to pay massive fines for its coal-ash carelessness. There is little doubt in environmentalists' mind which of those possibilities is behind DENR's unexpected reinstatement of the consent order.
D.J. Gerken, senior attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center, told WRAL, "DENR is apparently considering the possibility of shielding more Duke Energy coal ash pits under its do-nothing settlement deal with Duke, which requires no real action to clean up those coal ash lagoons." If Gerken is right, it would be a stunningly brazen decision from DENR which is already on the N.C. public's shit list for going light on a company that has covered 70 miles of riverbed with up to 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash. Perhaps DENR honcho John "Oil is a renewable resource" Skvarla knows the jig is up and he's bucking for a job with Duke Energy after he leaves government. Or maybe DENR and the McCrory administration are freaking out over the federal investigation and they're throwing anything out there to try to save their butts, and hoping something sticks. Either way, DENR's new "strategy" could be the only good coal ash news Duke gets for awhile, coming as it did the day before another report - this one from the Public News Service - revealed that some highly successful companies, including several in North Carolina, are paying little to no federal income tax. Duke Energy, one of the companies in the report, made $9 billion in profit during the past eight years but paid zero federal income tax.
On Tuesday, activists gathered in front of Duke Energy to protest the company's treatment of coal ash. Duke eventually accepted the petition mentioned in the video.