DENR chief, environmental lawyer go toe to toe over NC's coal ash problems

Posted February 28, 2014
Updated March 2, 2014

— North Carolina's top environmental regulator and the lawyer for a group that has pressured the state to force the cleanup of dozens of coal ash ponds exchanged some heated words Friday morning after the taping of WRAL News' public affairs program "On the Record."

Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources John Skvarla and Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, appeared in different segments of the program, which airs at 7 p.m. Saturday, to discuss the state's response to the recent spill of close to 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden and how to handle ash at 31 other ponds across North Carolina.

The ash ponds are at Duke Energy power plants, some of which are no longer in use. All are near rivers or lakes because the plants used coal and water to turn steam turbines and generate electricity. The ash is the material left after the coal is burned, and it contains toxic materials, including arsenic and heavy metals.

Skvarla said DENR is following a process in working with Duke on the ash ponds, although the agency might not be moving as quickly as some people want.

"The lay reaction, including myself as a layman, not as an engineer or a scientist, is let's get these things away from water as quickly as possible," he said. "We have to at least include the engineering and the science as a component of that (decision). Maybe the answer comes out exactly the same – it's 32 for 32 that the engineering and the science says that this is the correct thing to do.

"My issue is how expeditiously can we get to the bottom line," he continued. "I don't want this thing tied up in litigation or process."

The SELC wanted to sue Duke to get the ash ponds cleaned up, alleging that chemicals leaking from several ponds have contaminated groundwater and drinking water supplies and that DENR hasn't enforced regulations to stop it. DENR stepped in last year and filed its own lawsuit against the utility.

Holleman said the agency's suit only slowed down the process, and he criticized a proposed settlement with Duke that would have fined the company $99,000 for ponds near Asheville and Charlotte while not requiring them to clean up anything.

"So far, we've had a lot of talk, a lot of process, but no action," he said. "They have done everything they could up until this spill and this grand jury to hinder our ability to effectively enforce the law. ... We have had to drag information out of the state at every step of the way."

Federal investigators have subpoenaed DENR and Duke to determine whether any relationships between the two affected how the state has handled environmental regulations involving the utility.

During a final break in the taping, Holleman disputed Skvarla's assertion that DENR responded to the Dan River spill within two hours, stating that the agency was "six months late" in its actions. He said the state knew last August that the ash ponds there violated state and federal laws but didn't take any action to fix the problem.

Skvarla, who remained in the studio to listen to Holleman's segment, jumped up to ask whether the show was taping at that time and whether he could respond. After the show concluded, he approached Holleman and challenged his statement.

"You don't know that facts of the case," Holleman shot back. "You were notified about the problems with that (collapsed stormwater) pipe. No question about it."

Skvarla responded that Duke was responsible only for monitoring particles in the water coming out of the pipe in Eden and was doing so before the spill.

The two men quickly calmed down and told each other they preferred cleaning up the coal ash problem in the state to arguing.

"I have no desire to fight. Let's find a way to work together," Holleman said.

"I want to work together," Skvarla responded. "I've been active on this since my 17th day in office."


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  • Carl Keehn Mar 4, 2014
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    DENR has been defunded since 2011. There budget has been cut on an annual basis and they have been forced to do more with less.

    In 2011 the issue was steep slope development regulations. One of the legislators responsible for the oversight of DENR at that time was a developer with ties to Western NC. He used his powers to weaken DENR as their regulating of steep slope development was cutting into his profits.

  • SpaceRokr Mar 3, 2014

    That DENR didn't penalize the other locations until now affirms they are not up to the tasks at hand, and should be accordingly defunded.

  • Mike Slawter Mar 1, 2014
    user avatar

    Been active since his 17th day in office and where are we? Oh that's right, tons of pollution in our rivers and streams. Gotta love the no conflict of interest from the gov and his former employer.

  • Pensive01 Feb 28, 2014

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    When you are intending to take a matter to court, then you have to go with "alleging" until the verdict is reached, even if you have conclusive proof via lab results, photographs or what have you.

  • recontwice Feb 28, 2014

    The most vocal noise in the room was DENR supporting duke!!

  • stymieindurham Feb 28, 2014

    The SELC wanted to sue Duke to get the ash ponds cleaned up, alleging that chemicals . . .

    Is this alleging the same as "proving" or is it just environmental whining. I put about as much stock in this "alleging" as I do "sources say".

  • Carol Smith Feb 28, 2014
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    Duke paid the penalty but didnot clean up anything. DENR knew that.

  • ncsense Feb 28, 2014

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    That's not correct. In N.C., like most states, EPA has delegated the power to issue Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act permits to the state. DENR issues permits for the power plants under standards set in state rules (although the rules have to be at least as strict as the federal rules). DENR also does the routine inspections and enforcement.

  • Whatev333 Feb 28, 2014

    The regulatory authority is dependent on the media of the discharge. Waste water discharge (which is what coal ponds that discharge at end of pipe) to surface water are regulated by the state. A non-point source discharge (if you had a permit to spread solids or semi-solids that indirectly run off into surface water) are usually regulated by the state, but in some cases the state does not want to deal with it and practically speaking no one regulates it because this is not covered under the Clean Water Act. If you are talking about air permits, states usually handle those with strong input from the EPA because the air standards are determined more on a regional basis (in other words if Virginia were to dump a bunch of air pollutants that would effect neighboring states air quality). The main problem is the lobbying power of big coal. In Canada the air shed has been dramatically cleaned up wrt coal, but here it is fought tooth and nail.

  • Betsey Duggins Feb 28, 2014
    user avatar

    No matter what you read or believe, the power plants are regulated by the EPA, not DENR. This is where the mess and confusion start. The EPA writes the permits and until there is a leak of massive proportions, DENR is kept at bay due to lack of authority. If you want your voice heard, contact the EPA that allows the storage ponds, then contact Duke Energy and tell them to use their profit margin to cleanup the mess. Reeping record profits and allowing destructive environmental negligence is just not acceptable, no matter who you are connected to or have employed!