“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.