Aerial view of the site in North Carolina where an accident at a coal ash pond spilled tons of coal ash and wastewater into the Dan River. Photo: The Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability

28 February 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (The New York Times) – Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors called to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”

But when the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, those big changes were suddenly playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency.

The spill, which coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life, drew attention to a deal that the environmental department’s new leadership reached with Duke last year over pollution from coal ash ponds. It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove the ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds. Environmental groups said the arrangement protected a powerful utility rather than the environment or the public.

Facing increasing scrutiny and criticism, the department said late Friday that the company would be cited for two formal notices of violating environmental standards in connection with the spill. It is not clear what fines or other penalties could result.

"These are violations of state and federal law, and we are holding the utility accountable,” said the state environmental secretary, John E. Skvarla III.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman said Duke will respond to the state. [more]

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