DENR chief, environmental lawyer go toe to toe over NC's coal ash problems
Posted February 28, 2014
Updated March 2, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — 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."