North Carolina citizens demand action on coal ash

Rev. William Barber, center, of the N.C. NAACP and Forward Together Movement behind Moral Mondays spoke at a March 5 rally across the street from the governor's mansion demanding Duke Energy be held accountable for its coal ash spill into the Dan River. (Photo by Alex Kotch.)

Most North Carolina voters know about Duke Energy's spill of toxic coal ash into the Dan River -- and they want state lawmakers to take swift action to force the utility giant to clean up the mess and all of its ash pits across the state.

Those are the findings of a poll released on March 5 by the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan environmental advocacy group. It found that nine in 10 North Carolinians have heard about the Feb. 2 spill, which put an estimated 40,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash-contaminated water into the river, and say they want state lawmakers to require Duke Energy to clean up the polluted waterway.

The poll also found that over 80 percent of North Carolina voters want state leaders to require Duke Energy to clean up the more than 30 other coal ash pits at its 14 power plants across the state and to act immediately without further study of the issue. And over three-quarters of respondents said they're more likely to vote for a state legislator that "gets tough with corporate polluters like Duke Energy."

"The people have spoken and they demand swift and forceful action from our state lawmakers to require Duke Energy to clean up its mess," said Dan Crawford, NCLCV's director of government relations. "While another disaster is just waiting to happen, Gov. McCrory and state legislators should not wait any longer to take the necessary steps to ensure these coal ash sites are cleaned up immediately."

The same day the poll was released, a coalition of environmental, community and civil rights groups held a rally across the street from the governor's mansion in Raleigh, with a crowd of about 100 people calling on McCrory (R) and his administration to hold Duke Energy accountable. Among the groups participating were NC WARN, Democracy North Carolina and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, which was the leading force behind the Moral Monday protests against the legislature and governor.

N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber pointed out that coal ash dumps tend to be located near low-income communities and communities of color. He said the coal ash spill was not merely an ecological disaster but sin, and he noted that the protest took place on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar, when believers mark their foreheads with ashes as a sign of repentance.

"This spill is a call to repentance," said Barber. He reported that the NAACP-led Forward Together Movement behind Moral Mondays is planning to hold a town hall meeting near the site of the coal ash spill in Eden, N.C. on Monday, March 17.

The rally also called on McCrory to disclose more details about his financial ties to Duke Energy. McCrory worked for the company for 28 years and continues to hold at least $10,000 worth of stock in Duke, though he has refused to say exactly how much. His 2008 and 2012 gubernatorial campaigns benefited from over $1 million in political spending by the utility, according to a recent analysis by Democracy North Carolina. In addition, a number of key appointees in McCrory's administration -- including higher-ups in DENR -- previously worked for Duke Energy or its Progress Energy subsidiary.

"Gov. McCrory needs to come clean," Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, told the rally. "Are you going to serve the public or Duke Energy?"

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council has begun running ads about the coal ash spill on TV stations in North Carolina's populous Triangle and Triad regions. The 30-second spots point out that McCrory knew the coal ash pits were dangerous yet signed a law last year that weakened protections against groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds and other pollution sources.

"Pat McCrory has coal ash on his hands," the ad's narrator says. "It's time for him to clean it up." Watch the ad here:

The growing demands to address Duke Energy's coal ash pollution come as federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the spill. They also come amid revelations that staff with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tried for years -- going back to the previous administration of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue -- to impose stormwater runoff controls at the Dan River plant's ash pits and others operated by Duke and Progress Energy, which merged with Duke in 2012. However, their efforts met resistance from the utilities and higher-ups in state government.

The revelations were contained in emails obtained in a public records request submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and shared with media outlets. SELC has been engaged in a three-year effort to get regulators in North Carolina and South Carolina to force utilities to clean up coal ash waste sites. In South Carolina, the SELC's legal action led to an agreement with S.C. Gas & Electric to clean up coal ash pits at its Wateree plant near Columbia and with Santee Cooper to stop coal ash contamination from its Grainger plant near Myrtle Beach.

But in North Carolina, DENR intervened in the SELC's lawsuit, which was filed under the citizen enforcement provision of the federal Clean Water Act. The state agency in turn reached what good-government watchdogs criticized as a "sweetheart deal" with Duke that included a fine of just over $99,000 for pollution from its ash pits near Asheville and Charlotte. The agreement did not require the company, which earned $2.68 billion in 2013 alone, to clean up its pits.

Last month, state Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca and House Environmental Committee Vice Chair Chuck McGrady, both Republicans from western North Carolina's Henderson County, said they plan to introduce a bill requiring the removal of coal ash pits like the one that failed at Duke's Dan River plant. The legislature reconvenes in May for a short session prior to the fall elections.

Apodaca and McGrady, a former national president of the Sierra Club, live near a Duke coal-fired plant along the French Broad River south of Asheville, N.C. that's known to be contaminating groundwater.