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Coal ash debate resurfaces in state politics, likely to take focus in upcoming elections

“As a result of the Dan River Spill, state agencies were politically embarrassed, and really their credibility was destroyed,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Dan River spill demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that the state agency, which is now called (the Department of Environmental Quality), had totally failed the state by not responding to coal ash threats.”

Utilities wield legal power

Holleman said the close relationship between DEQ and utility providers like Duke Energy is the main issue in the fight for enforcing legal coal ash storage.

Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, said the complexity of an environmental issue like coal ash makes it difficult for people to agree on a solution when it comes to storage.

“Coal ash has to be stored somewhere, and one of the popular ways to store it in North Carolina is in coal ash ponds where it is put in a large pond and covered in water,” he said.

The responsibility of safe and legal storage is in the hands of utility companies. And these utilities are the most politically influential entities represented in state legislatures, which set budgets for state regulatory agencies, Holleman said.

“So the state agencies have been very reluctant to and very ineffective at enforcing the law at these coal ash sites and protecting the public,” Holleman said.

DEQ has undergone significant transformations in the past six years according to Richard Whisnant, a professor in the UNC School of Government.

“Since 2010 there has been a pretty major moving of a lot of parts of that department over to other departments,” he said. “It’s basically been stripped down.”

The department has narrowed its focus in recent years and no longer addresses resource management such as forests, fish, soil, water and public health concerns, Whisnant said.

“It’s really much more of an environmental protection regulatory agency, whereas 20 years ago, it was trying to be a lot more than that,” he said.

Whisnant said the lack of resources in the department limits the creation of new policies.

“When you get one of these big, new issues coming along that doesn’t have routine standard procedures in place, it stresses the agency a lot,” he said.

Hostility towards regulation

Whisnant said increases in the environmental regulation of stormwater during the 1990s and early 2000s have had lingering effects on public opinion.

“I do think that did generate a good deal of hostility about environmental regulation,” he said.

That hostility continues today and has expanded to the government, where it is the main obstacle for reform, said Holleman.

“In North Carolina, the state environmental agency has been hostile to and has opposed citizen efforts to enforce clean water laws and obtain cleanups of coal ash pollution,” he said.

But South Carolina, which has experienced similar coal ash problems, has not seen the same hostility, Holleman said.

“In South Carolina, the state environmental agency did not interfere with its citizens,” he said. “In fact, after the Dan River spill, it was helpful.”

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Holleman said problems with leadership in the DEQ have made the organization less effective at protecting the health and the interests of the public.

“The public interest has been thrown out the window, and the supposed environmental agency has actually been taking steps that hurt the environment and undercut the efforts of their own citizens,” he said.

North Carolina residents will have several upcoming opportunities to voice concern about coal ash, Holleman said.

“In February and March, the public will have a chance to send in public comments demanding there be cleanups and will be able to attend public hearings about each of the coal ash sites in North Carolina,” he said.

Holleman said information regarding the hearing dates will be provided on the DEQ website.

Environmental issues are likely to play a major role in upcoming state and national elections, said Crawford.

“The citizen is between electing someone that chooses to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe versus someone that chooses to side with corporations,” he said.

Holleman said that environmental issues should be front and center in North Carolina because they are not partisan.

“They are essential to public health and safety. They are essential to the local economy. They are essential to quality of life,” he said. “They are also an essential part of who we are as responsible human beings.”