Gov. Pat McCrory said in an interview Wednesday that he would prefer to see coal ash ponds like one that fouled the Dan River earlier this month closed and cleaned out, but he added that such a solution would not always be the most environmentally sound option.
McCrory spoke with WRAL News by phone from the road as efforts to clean up the Feb. 2 coal ash spill near Eden continued. His remarks came shortly after senior officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources spoke to reporters.
Earlier this week, McCrory sparked speculation that the state may be changing its policy regarding to coal ash ponds during remarks at North Carolina A&T State University. As reported by the Greensboro News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal, McCrory called for "moving the ash ponds so they don’t cause long-term issues with our water."
There are 32 coal ash ponds at 14 current or former power generating sites throughout the state. All of the sites are owned by Duke Energy.
McCrory: move coal ash if possible In the phone interview, McCrory said his preference is still to see the coal ash ponds closed and the toxic material – which contains arsenic and heavy metals – buried but said that kind of move was not the only option the state would consider.
"The best case scenario is to move the ash ponds, but I also have to understand that, in some cases, that option may not be environmentally sound or may cause a worsening of the situation," McCrory said.
The remarks echoed the sentiment of DENR Secretary John Skvarla earlier in the day.
"I think we need to let the experts determine the best way to determine the long-term solution," the governor said. "I think each site has its own unique issue. Again, we prefer that coal ash ponds can be moved at each site, but we also understand there may be some cases where that’s not environmentally sound. So, I’ll let my environmental experts give that advice and not have the politicians give that advice."
Pressed as to what potential environmental problems might arise from cleaning out the ponds, McCrory said he would rely on experts at DENR to advise him with regard to those issues.
McCrory: 'No facts' to back up Duke conflict
McCrory, a Republican, is a former Duke Energy employee, and several environmental and good-government groups have questioned his ties to the company. Democracy North Carolina, for example, pointed to high-dollar campaign contributions from Duke to Republican causes.
McCrory: no special treatment for Duke "What we know about the cozy relationship between McCrory and Duke is disturbing, and what we don’t know needs to come out into the open," Bob Hall, the group's executive director, said in a news release.
Asked about the criticism of close ties between his administration and Duke, McCrory said there were "no facts" that showed a conflict of interest.
"We’ve yet to see any facts to back that up with whatsoever. In fact, if anything, this administration has done more regarding taking action against Duke than any previous administration in North Carolina history. Duke is absolutely receiving no special treatment, and it’s a false premise that critics have been trying to pass first during my campaign and then once I was elected governor," McCrory said.
McCrory said he has had no direct conversations with Duke regarding coal ash ponds.
He went on to say, "we took action (against Duke) within the first 75 days of taking office."
McCrory was referring to a set of four lawsuits in which the state has sued Duke over the coal ash ponds. The first of those suits did come during the first months of the McCrory administration, but they were not unprompted.
Environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed notice that they planned to sue under the federal Clean Water Act in an effort to have Duke clean up its ponds. The state had 60 days to respond to those letters of intent. Close to the end of that period in each case, the state gave notice that it would take on the responsibility of enforcing the Clean Water Act.
During his news conference, Skvarla pointed to that as evidence that the McCrory administration was pushing the company to clean up its ponds. While Skvarla described environmental groups as "partners" in the process, officials with the Southern Environmental Law Center said the state's actions actually inhibited the nonprofit group's ability to press for a cleanup.
McCrory backed up his DENR secretary Wednesday.
"I told John Skvarla to do the right thing," McCrory said.
'Culture of customer service' not a problem
McCrory entered office saying that he wanted to created a "culture of customer service" within his administration. At the time, he was trying to describe a relationship that was less adversarial between regulators and those they regulate.
As with the governor's ties to Duke, those outside the administration have questioned whether this culture led to lax oversight with regard to the Dan River spill.
"Again, you’re raising questions with no basis in facts. So, I encourage you to get the facts," McCrory said. "We’ve also stated very strongly that we’re going to follow the rules and regulations of the state of North Carolina in enforcement, and we’re going to be very upfront with our customers on what our answers are."
He referenced the Skvarla news conference, during which the DENR secretary pointed out that no prior administration had filed suit against Duke or what was then Progress Energy, a company that merged with Duke, regarding coal ash.
"It’s this administration that’s taken the action, regardless of what some of the political and media critics have tried to emphasize with no facts,” he said.
Asked whether he would support or oppose legislation that would require Duke to clean up the coal ash ponds, McCrory deferred to Skvarla, saying again that he would rely on experts to advise him on what was the best solution.
Reporters did not have a chance to ask Skvarla about the proposed legislation before DENR officials cut off the news conference. Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency, later said there were "too many questions at this point to give a flat we will or we won't" answer with regard to supporting a cleanup proposal.