Voter ire over handling of Duke Energy coal ash disaster transcends party politics

An environmental group has been running TV ads critical of North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis for failing to do enough to address Duke Energy's coal ash pollution -- and a new poll finds that most of the state's voters agree. (Image is a still from the NCLCV ad.)

Three-quarters of North Carolinians -- of all political affiliations -- don't think the state legislature has done enough to address Duke Energy's recent coal ash spill into the Dan River.

That's the finding of a poll of 519 North Carolina voters released today by the NC League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV). The environmental advocacy group has undertaken a $1 million coal ash campaign that includes TV ads criticizing state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) for failing to take adequate action to protect the environment and Duke Energy's ratepayers. The survey was conducted July 25 and 26 by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling (PPP).

Tillis is currently running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who was the keynote speaker for the NCLCV's recent annual Green Tie Awards dinner honoring state lawmakers and others who've taken action to protect North Carolina's environment.*

The PPP poll, which was conducted last week, also found that voters overwhelmingly think:

* Duke Energy should clean up the coal ash left in the Dan. A solid 80 percent of voters surveyed say Duke Energy should have to clean up the 36,000 tons of toxic ash that remain in the Dan River out of the approximately 39,000 tons spilled. That includes 89 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Republicans, and 72 percent of independents. Only 13 percent of voters surveyed think the spill cleanup has been adequate. The state has lifted a ban on swimming in the river, but environmentalists have raised concerns about potential health threats from the remaining coal ash, which contains potent toxins including arsenic, lead and mercury.

* Lawmakers need to get coal ash away from waterways. The poll found that 76 percent of North Carolina voters think the General Assembly should require all coal ash ponds to be moved from waterways compared to just 16 percent who say they should be allowed to be covered and remain in place. The Coal Ash Management Act (SB 729) currently being worked out in a legislative conference committee would require immediate cleanup and removal of only four of Duke Energy's 33 coal ash ponds across the state.

* Duke Energy -- not its ratepayers -- should foot the coal ash cleanup bill. An overwhelming 82 percent of North Carolina voters are concerned and 71 percent are very concerned about the legislature passing a bill that doesn't require Duke Energy to pay for the cleanup of the company's coal ash ponds, instead allowing the costs to be passed on to Duke's customers. In all, 90 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans, and 75 percent of independents are concerned about this.

The poll found that the coal ash spill is hurting Tillis politically, with 63 percent saying the handling of the disaster has made them less favorable toward him, compared to only 19 percent who approve of his efforts. In all, 51 percent of North Carolina voters disapprove of Tillis' handling of environmental issues in general, compared to only 20 percent who approve. NCLCV is currently asking supporters to call Tillis and urge him to use his leadership to craft a stronger bill.

"With a budget deal being struck, time is of the essence to contact legislators and let them know to fix the coal ash bill before going home," said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for NCLCV. "The people have spoken and it is clear to all that the current edition of the bill does not do enough to protect our drinking water."

PPP's latest poll on the Senate race, released last week, finds Hagan continuing to expand her lead over Tillis, with Hagan at 41 percent, Tillis at 34 percent, and Libertarian Sean Haugh at 8 percent. Hagan's seven-point lead over Tillis is up from two points in May and five points in June.

The NCLCV coal ash poll also found that the environment will play an important role in how North Carolinians vote this fall. In all, 90 percent of voters surveyed say environmental issues will be important to them when deciding how to vote, while 58 percent say that they will be "very important."

There's a consensus on the importance of the environment across the political spectrum, with 94 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of both Republicans and independents saying it would affect their voting decisions.

* Disclosure: Last year the author of this story was a recipient of the NCLCV's Green Tie Award for her environmental reporting.