Editorial: Bureaucrats bicker as well owners worry

Monday, Aug. 22, 2016: Bureaucratic finger-pointing between scientists and agency political appointees isn't helping reassure the public about the safety of their drinking water. It needs to stop

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Coal ash cleanup sign in Goldsboro
A CBC Editorial: Monday, Aug. 22, 2016; Editorial# 8045
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

These days a clown car at the circus seems more organized than the McCrory administration’s handling of drinking water near coal ash ponds. The finger pointing, confusion and excuses keep popping – each stranger than the one before.

Let’s review the script: Back in Feb. 2014, a failure at a Duke Energy coal ash pond spilled thousands of tons of ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River.

The spill raised concerns about the structural safety of other coal ash ponds at Duke Energy sites around the state as well as the potential for contamination of ground water – particularly of those with household wells near the pond sites.

Through the next year, contradictory bureaucratic and legal wrangling continued. In March and April 2015, the state sent letters to 425 well-water users near coal ash sites, saying they should not drink or cook with the unsafe water.

Even as the letters were going out, a bureaucratic tug-of-war raged between political appointees and staff scientists. The governor’s top press aide got involved – and maybe the governor, too.

Finally, the administration decided to change its position. Another letter went out.

N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and state Health Director Randell Williams sent the homeowners a letter saying that they’d concluded “water out of your well is as safe as the majority of public water systems in the country.” While they weren’t basing their decision on new findings about the well water but that the initial recommendation of the state’s scientists was “out of step with the federal government and 49 other states.”

Rather than dampen concerns, the new letters added fuel to the controversy. Lawsuits led to sworn depositions. Details of the depositions are disclosed followed by a hastily called late-night news conference with accusations, declarations and charges of character of assassination.  Amid it all, citizens still don’t have any more security about whether their household water is safe.

As the point-and-counter-point escalated to the officials’ open letter chastising the scientists, Megan Davies, the state’s top epidemiologist and one of those scientists, resigned in protest of the public criticism of her staff. In a publically released resignation letter, she said she couldn’t work for an administration that “deliberately misleads the public.”

This is not a pitch for “House of Cards” or a skit on “Saturday Night Live.” You cannot make this up. The McCrory administration struggles to get its house in order. The word is dysfunctional.

Finger pointing may keep lots of people busy, but it doesn’t solve problems North Carolina faces nor address the needs of its citizens.

Register and vote.

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