Fact Check: Does Gov. McCrory 'have coal ash on his hands?'

Posted March 21, 2014
Updated March 23, 2014

Gov. Pat McCrory

— NCCapitol's fact-checking staff has had a pair of ads aimed at Gov. Pat McCrory by the Natural Resources Defense Council on our "to-do" list for so long that neither is still on our air. 

However, we're still getting reader questions about our take on the ads – which cost about $400,000 to air according to ad tracking firms and Federal Election Commission documents – so this is a belated fact check on the pair.

The ads: The NRDC aired two different ads, one named "Hands" and the other named "Clean." Both take McCrory to task for the Feb. 2 coal ash spill in the Dan River.

"It didn't have to happen – the massive coal ash spill in the Dan River," says a male voice kicking off the "Hands" ad. "But Gov. Pat McCrory didn't do his job{{/a}}."

The ad then goes on to list a series of occasions when McCrory's administration did not push hard to clean up the state's coal ash ponds. 

The "Clean" ad is much the same, and both share the same tag line. "Pat McCrory has coal ash on his hands. It's time for him to clean it up."

The backup: NRDC provided full backup sheets for both "Hands" and "Clean," which by and large accurately cite news reports concerning the spill and coal ash. 

Generally, the ads detail the year of history that preceded the Feb. 2 spill. While that spill was dramatic, dumping up to 39,000 tons of toxin-laced goop into the Dan River, environmental groups have been pushing the state and Duke Energy to clean up coal ash ponds at 14 locations across the states for years. 

In January 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center gave the state notice that it would sue to enforce clean water violations under federal law. Instead of allowing that suit to go forward, DENR stepped in to bring suit itself.

Recently released emails show the state worked closely with Duke, seemingly cutting SELC and other environmental groups out of the process. Eventually, the state and Duke reached a settlement under which Duke would propose timelines but required no specific actions. 

Other emails show DENR officials knew that Duke coal ash ponds were slowly leaking toxins into nearby water supplies in ways that violate federal and state law. 

That prompted SELC and other environmental groups to cry foul, calling the settlement "weak and ineffective" and a "sweetheart deal" where the $50 billion Charlotte-based company would have paid $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater leeching from two of its plants with no requirement that it stop the pollution.

Even as public pressure has increased, the company has been vague about its plans for cleaning up the ponds. In the mean time, a federal grand jury is probing whether DENR officials improperly gave Duke breaks on regulation. Subpoenas in the case specifically are probing whether Duke gave anything of value to regulators. 

Earlier Friday, DENR was forced to abandon its deal with Duke, despite previously contemplating expanding it to all 14 coal ash sites.

The problem: All of that history is accurate, as far as it goes. The problem is the ads conflate two different things: the dramatic Feb. 2 spill and the long-running wrangling over slow seepage from the ponds. 

The ads gloss over the fact that coal ash seepage problems have been an issue going back decades in North Carolina, spanning Republican and Democratic administrations. Recent legislative efforts to push through controls on coal ash ponds met with resistance from Democratic leaders in 2008 and 2009 and got little help from either Govs. Mike Easley or Bev Perdue. 

More problematic for the ad is that it suggests that McCrory could have done something to stop the specific Feb. 2 spill or that his actions have somehow frustrated the cleanup. 

The actions cited in the two ads all relate to slow leaching of chemicals. NRDC is making the case that cleaning up the ponds would have averted the spill entirely, which may be true but could be said of just about any recent governor.

As well, the Feb. 2 spill happened when a corrugated metal pipe that ran under the Dan River coal ash pond collapsed. The stormwater pipe in Eden was thought to have been made of concrete, but the spill revealed that only the visible ends of the pipe were concrete and that cheaper corrugated metal had been used for the underground section of the conduit. 

That surprised both regulators and the company

McCrory has been insistent over the past month that Duke needs to clean up all of the ponds and take on the burden of cleaning up the Dan River spill. The company has pledged that the cost of the Dan River cleanup will be borne by its shareholders and insurance companies. 

Fact Check RedThe call: Certainly, there is ample evidence that the McCrory administration was more cooperative than antagonistic toward Duke, and it is true that McCrory is a former Duke employee. However, the NRDC claim goes further.

The ads imply that McCrory could have had knowledge of the structural failings of the Dan River pond, which were unknown to regulators and the company alike, and the ads imply that McCrory's actions have somehow obstructed the cleanup of the Dan River spill. Neither of those implications hold up, so this ad gets a red light


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  • dahill001 Mar 31, 2014

    Between preempting the citizen lawsuit and gutting the Division of Water Quality, including shuffling around the stormwater unit, you can definitely say McCrony has coal ash on his hands. Now DENR gets to be reactive instead of proactive thanks to GOP hatred for the environment.

  • tdouble232323 Mar 25, 2014

    Do NC Democrats only have short term memory?

    A: Yes. They appear oblivious to the problems in this state prior to McCrory taking office.

  • 42_wral_mods_suck_i'm_gone Mar 25, 2014

    Does Gov. McCrory 'have coal ash on his hands?

    A: Yes right next to the blood of the uninsured. How many have died because he did not expand Medicaid to the uninsured?

  • Garry Spears Mar 25, 2014
    user avatar

    Fact Check: Are McCrory's pockets lined with Duke campaign money?

    Do anyone honestly think McCrory cares more about the average NC citizen than his ties to Duke money? If you do call me, I've got some prime lake front property next to the Dan river. Great for swimming.

  • goldenosprey Mar 25, 2014

    View quoted thread

    So you'll apply this question to the budget deficit?

  • bmac813 Mar 25, 2014

    DWNTWNBOY2, You don't trust McCrory with Duke Stocks.
    BUT I'll bet you it was OK for Obama to get 46 Million Dollars from Wall Street. I'll bet you never said a word about that.
    I'm for the Middleclass and the Poor, Than I got out the Next day and sit down with my RICH friends at a $75,000 a Plate Dinner, OBAMA
    By the Way I have Stock in Duke Energy, had it for Years. Good Stock, Go and Buy some, OH , You already have some.

  • Jack Jones Mar 25, 2014
    user avatar

    Yes. Gov McCrory has coal ash on his hands.

  • redfish Mar 24, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Since nothing was done during the Hunt, Easley and Perdue administrations your distrust is understandable. I believe this time to many folks are involved and we may finally see some results. Lets hope it's an intelligent plan involving using this stuff so it's not hanging around for future generations to deal with again.

  • dwntwnboy2 Mar 24, 2014

    "Since you detest Duke will you divest yourself of their stock? My guess is probably not.."- I'm not a long time employee/consultant for them and not running for the top office in the state they have a large holding in and are having environmental issues with. Why do I think he has more than just what is in his 401K? I know for a FACT I don't own a single share or part of a share of DUKE anything. Still doesn't change the fact his administration has been soft of Duke during his time in office. As for previous administrations- they may have known about issues, but one of the largest dumping/spills of toxic ashe ever into NC (or ANY) waterways happened on HIS watch, from a company he has close ties to. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that he wasn't going to go after the hand that fed him for many years as hard as he would someone else- we'll have to see what happens.

  • Ty Shrake Mar 24, 2014
    user avatar

    "That and the fact he won't disclose how much money he has wrapped up in Duke stock. " - DWNTWNBOY2

    He ownership of Duke stock is through his 401K. He probably has a mutual fund that has a 1-3% interest in Duke. Big deal. Demonstrate how THAT is influencing is decision making process.

    If you have a 401K or any mutual funds YOU might also own Duke stock. Since you detest Duke will you divest yourself of their stock? My guess is probably not...