The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had a big assignment due on New Year's Eve. It had 16 months to work on it, but still turned its homework in at the very last minute—around noon on Dec. 31. Whether DEQ's timing had anything to do with the fact that New Year's Eve is a fantastic day for a news dump is for others to say. What we know for certain is that the work is trash-like, and deserves a mark of "incomplete."
Per the Coal Ash Management Act—enacted in 2014 in response to Duke Energy's spill of 39,000 tons of hazardous coal ash into the Dan River—DEQ was required to evaluate and rate the safety levels of 14 of Duke's sites across the state. Those deemed "high" risk would have to be cleaned up by Duke by 2019; "intermediate"-risk sites by 2024; "low"-risk sites likely by 2029, though possibly never.
Half of this work had already been done by others. The conditions of a criminal plea agreement require Duke to clean up four of the sites (Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend). And Duke has reached a settlement with the Southern Environmental Law Center to clean up three more (Cape Fear, Lee, Weatherspoon). That's despite the DEQ challenging the SELC's agreement with Duke in court—essentially, opposing the cleanup.
"I know, it's hard to believe," says SELC attorney Frank Holleman.
For five of the remaining sites, DEQ has determined that it does not have enough information to classify them. It's just not sure yet!
That's not all. In November, the SELC obtained a public document from DEQ containing findings on dam safety, groundwater, surface water and drinking water at these sites. According to that document, nearly every single Duke site was rated "high" risk. But in the official release, sent on New Year's Eve, only the four sites that are part of the criminal plea agreement are rated "high." The rest are all "low," "intermediate" or "low to intermediate"—that is, undecided.
"They literally did not comply with the law," Holleman says. "They were supposed to issue final ratings by Dec. 31, and for several of the sites, they didn't. And besides that, they ignored their own staff's ratings and watered them down in the final version. Meanwhile, we're two years since the Dan River spill, and three years since we began pushing DEQ to start cleaning up these sites. And, for some political or ideological or bureaucratic reason, the leadership at DEQ doesn't want to require Duke to clean up coal ash at these sites. That's the only conclusion a fair-minded person could reach."
(Here we note without comment that Gov. Pat McCrory was a Duke Energy executive for 28 years.)
For his part, DEQ Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart thinks the SELC is disrupting the process.
"I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data," van der Vaart said in a press release.
Concerns about DEQ's limp findings can be voiced at a series of public meetings being held throughout January and February at each coal-ash site.
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