North Carolina Voters Want Action On Coal Ash As EPA Asks For More Time On Regulations

Pollution visible on the surface of the Dan River, North Carolina. CREDIT: A.P. IMAGES
Pollution visible on the surface of the Dan River, North Carolina. CREDIT: A.P. IMAGES

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told a federal court on Tuesday that it will not meet its May 22 deadline for completing its water pollution discharge standards for coal-fired power plants. The bid for more time does not bode well for the EPA’s December 19 deadline to finish a separate rule that would, for the first time, regulate the coal ash ponds.

Coal ash regulation has supposedly been a priority for the EPA since a massive coal-ash leak in 2008 at a plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority spilled over 1 billion gallons of coal ash and destroyed two dozen homes and 300 acres of riverfront property.

More recently, pressure has been mounting for the agency to take action after a stormwater pipe under an unlined coal ash pond at a retired Duke coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, burst — draining thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River on February 2.

The Sierra Club on Tuesday released the results of a poll it commissioned from Hart Research Associates that shows broad bipartisan support for regulation of coal ash among voters in North Carolina.


Hart polled 600 North Carolina voters earlier this month, and found that 83 percent of respondents want coal ash regulated as a hazardous substance and 90 percent think that Duke should clean up all coal ash sites in the state. Seventy percent of those polled thought Duke Energy was at least mostly at fault for the Dan River spill and 57 percent think that stronger regulations could have prevented the spill.

Voters also indicated that they were prepared to let politicians know where they stand on this issue at the ballot box with 70 percent of respondents saying they would be more likely to support a candidate who “favors strong regulations and enforcement…to prevent future spills.” Just 17 percent of voters would be more likely to support a candidate who says that having more regulations and enforcement will hurt jobs and the state’s economy.

“You can throw the coal industry’s conventional wisdom out the window,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, in a release. “As we saw in West Virginia, this North Carolina coal spill has been a wake up call for voters about the need to protect our water from toxic coal pollution. This poll is yet another indication that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in coal states want leaders who will stand up to big coal companies and enact common-sense initiatives to protect our air, our water, and our families from toxic coal ash and pollution.” In the wake of the Dan River spill, the McCrory administration has come under close scrutiny for its potentially cozy connections with Duke Energy, which employed Gov. McCrory for almost 30 years and contributed generously to his gubernatorial bids.

In a bizarre twist, on Monday, the Associated Press reported that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has hired an attorney who has previously represented Duke to help the Department respond to the 20 grand jury subpoenas issued as part of a federal investigation into the February 2 spill.

A legal expert told the AP that while this choice of representation doesn’t technically break any rules, it won’t help convince anyone of the DENR’s independence from Duke.


“As far as the rules of professional conduct and the State Bar ethics rules that govern attorney conflict, it doesn’t sound like an obvious violation,” Eric Fink, an associate professor at Elon University School of Law told the AP. “But for a reasonable person looking at this, it would raise eyebrows. It’s a fuzzy area. I see real grounds for members of the public to question what this says about the state’s independence of Duke.”

The attorney at the center of all the raised eyebrows, is Mark T. Calloway of Charlotte, NC who represented Duke back in 2004. That case centered around a 2002 audit of Duke which found that the utility had underreported its profits by $124 million over three years. Duke was never convicted of a crime, but did reimburse its customers $25 million.

Peter Harrison, an attorney for the WaterKeeper Alliance, assessed NCDENR’s choice of legal representation more harshly.

“Governor McCrory and his appointees at DENR seem unable to at least appear as anything other than business associates of the energy company they should be regulating,” Harrison told the AP. “By hiring Duke’s former criminal defense attorney, they demonstrate an arrogant indifference toward regaining the confidence of the public.”