Big Energy-Backed NC Environment Commission Searches for Pollution Penalty Loopholes

On March 6th of this year, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway handed down a ruling that Duke Energy must immediately prevent toxins from their coal ash ponds from leaking into the water supply, and also that the energy giant had to develop a plan to clean up all of the groundwater that they had contaminated in the state. Ridgeway said that the state and the energy company had been misinterpreting a state law for decades in order to avoid cleaning up their toxic mess.

Judge Ridgeway’s ruling gave the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) the authority to hold Duke accountable for years of pollution. But just when it looked like Duke Energy might finally have to pay for their environmental crimes, something magical happened: The EMC appealed Ridgeway’s ruling.

Rather than doing the job they were ordered to do by a judge, the state agency sided with Duke Energy in appealing the ruling, claiming that the state’s environmental laws do not give the agency the authority to order a cleanup of contaminated water supplies.

The EMC isn’t reacting this way because they are too busy, or because they don’t have the resources to enforce the cleanup – they joined the appeal because Duke Energy basically owns the state government in North Carolina outright.

The EMC claims to operate independently from the influence of state government, but they are directly appointed by the government. The board consists of 15 members appointed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory (8 appointments to the board), Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger (7 collective appointments to the board.) The common thread among these politicians? Their campaigns were all funded by Duke Energy and a host of dirty energy heavyweights.

Governor McCrory’s incestuous relationship with Duke Energy goes far beyond the $1.1 million that the company has poured into his campaigns over the years. McCrory was employed by the company for 28 years before leaving in 2007 to start his political career. 

Knowing that the EMC panel would be faced with decisions about Duke Energy, it is nearly impossible to believe that the governor would appoint anyone who would dare question his former employer and top campaign donor’s activities.

What about Berger and Tillis? Both are recipients of Duke Energy campaign cash – to the tune of $8,000 apiece in their last elections.  North Carolina law allows a contribution limit of $4,000 for a campaign, and an additional $4,000 for the primary. Again, they would be reluctant to appoint a staunch environmentalist to a panel that decides the fate of their favorite campaign donor (or any of their dirty energy donors, including Koch Industries for both Republican leaders.)

One of the committee members, Benne Hutson, had to recuse himself from the panel’s decision to join Duke in the appeal, as he is actually an attorney for Duke Energy. That alone tells you all you need to know about the caliber of people appointed to Governor McCrory’s EMC panel.

This is not the first time that Governor McCrory’s government officials have worked on behalf of Duke Energy.  After this year’s Dan River coal ash spill, Mother Jones explained that the North Carolina government stepped in several times in the last 12 months to shield the company from environmental lawsuits:

The Associated Press reports that McCrory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked three federal Clean Water Act suits in 2013 by stepping in with its own enforcement authority “at the last minute.” This protected Duke from the kinds of stiff fines and penalties that can result from federal lawsuits. Instead, state regulators arranged settlements that carried miniscule financial penalties and did not require Duke to change how it stores the toxic byproducts of its coal-fired power plants. After blocking the first three suits, which were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the state filed notices saying that it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's remaining North Carolina coal ash storage sites—protecting the company from Clean Water Act lawsuits linked to its coal waste once and for all.

Duke Energy operates 14 coal ash ponds in the state of North Carolina, and every single one of those ponds has been cited for pollution in the last 12 months. Al Jazeera America explained the danger that these coal ash ponds poise to local communities:

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal for industrial power generation and contains concentrated amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine and varying amounts of radioactive uranium, thorium and potassium. The toxins have been linked to cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children and behavioral problems, according to waste assessments done by the EPA.

With the current political leadership in the state of North Carolina, it appears increasingly unlikely that Duke Energy will ever be held accountable for their environmental destruction.  And as long as they have billions of dollars in revenue, they’ll have plenty of cash on hand to purchase future generations of political leaders in North Carolina and beyond.

Image Credit: Will Thomas

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