McCrory, a Republican seeking his second term, faces Cooper, a Democrat, in this fall's gubernatorial campaign.
Ever since a Feb. 2, 2014, spill from a former Duke Energy plant spilled upwards of 39,000 tons of toxin-laced goop into the Dan River in Rockingham County, McCrory has taken heat for his administration's handling of coal ash contamination at sites across the state. This ad seeks to shift blame to Cooper.
"Roy Cooper has been in state government for 30 years," says a man who identifies himself as having lived near a coal ash pit for years. "And like so many politicians, he has ignored the problems. Cooper claims to fight polluters, but he really fought cleanup efforts as the attorney general. He did nothing, while his friends made it harder to prevent coal ash spills."
The accusation that Cooper fought coal ash cleanup is a serious one. Coal ash is linked to contaminated drinking water and is widely regarded as one of the state's most pressing environmental hazards.
For years, news about these pits largely flew below the headlines with rare exceptions. While there were lawsuits over a few sites where contamination had leaked into groundwater or surface water, they weren't the headline-grabbing affairs they are today.
It wasn't until the 2014 spill in the Dan River that coal ash became the front-and-center political issue that it is today. It is fair to say that, before 2014, with rare exceptions, neither Republican nor Democratic lawmakers were focused on cleaning up ash from the 14 locations Duke stored it around the state.
It's also worth noting that Cooper was elected attorney general in 2000, an office he held at both the times of the TVA spill and the Dan River spill. Before then, he was a state lawmakers for 14 years.
McCrory's own history is relevant as well. He is a former Duke executive, and his connections to the company have been criticized by opponents, so it makes sense that he would want to shift focus to what his campaign would say are Cooper's failures.
Two patterns emerge reading through that sheet. One is that McCrory is pinning actions by lawmakers and McCrory's two predecessors, Democratic Govs. Bev Perdue and Mike Easley, on Cooper. For example, it points to a bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Perdue in 2009, labeling it an act of "Roy Cooper And The Perdue Administration" without making an effort to show how Cooper, who was elected separately from Perdue and did not have a direct say on the legislation, was involved.
The other theme running through the document is that it frequently misrepresents the stories and other resources to which it links.
For example, that backup sheets summarizes a bullet point from 2014 this way: "After the McCrory Administration Became The First Administration To Sue Duke Energy, Roy Cooper’s Office Negotiated A $99,111 Limited Settlement With The Energy Company Over Groundwater Contamination At Its Coal Ash Basins. The Settlement Was Later Rescinded By The McCrory Administration."
Pressed for a more direct connection that would show Cooper "fought" coal ash cleanup, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz pointed to a pair of News & Observer stories. The most substantive of the two dealt with a complex set of interactions between environmental rules and state laws. Diaz pointed to a paragraph that read, "The 2009 attorney general’s advice concluded that utilities didn’t have to clean up or stop the source of pollution within their compliance boundaries, which reversed the way the rule had been interpreted since 1993. In 2012, the law center asked the Environmental Management Commission to revert to the earlier interpretation, but it refused."
"These are all examples of actions taken or opportunities missed that compounded the problems, delayed cleaning up coal ash and made it harder to prevent spills. Roy Cooper had every opportunity to address the problems in his capacity as attorney general, but didn't," Diaz insisted.
"North Carolina families deserve to know that their drinking water is safe. Roy Cooper has a long record of standing up for North Carolina families against the big utilities, and he will continue to hold them accountable as Governor."
Teasing apart the policy from the politics of this is doubly difficult due to what has been a more than two-year run-up to this fall's general election campaign, in which interactions between Cooper's Department of Justice and McCrory's Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that was once DENR, became increasingly contentious and colored by the upcoming campaign.
That's especially awkward because Cooper's department is supposed to function as the state's law firm, providing legal counsel to all of its agencies. That relationship has been frayed throughout the campaign on a number of cases, especially where Cooper took positions different from the administration on issues such as the controversial law known as House Bill 2 or voting rights.
But did Cooper or his lawyers somehow deviate from administration policy in such a way that coal ash cleanup would be hampered?
One of the most logical groups to weigh in on this question would be the Southern Environmental Law Center, a group that has been in the thick of the litigation over coal ash and has been critical of the state's recent efforts on that front.
"Unfortunately, we can’t as a nonprofit help with this article about an election ad," said Kathleen Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the group.
Many environmental groups are perceived as liberal, or at least tacitly aligned with Democratic candidates and causes. One that has been vocally critical of Cooper's handling of some environmental work, particularly with regard to regulating rate increases, has been N.C. WARN, a group that describes itself as "tackling the climate crisis – and other hazards posed by electricity generation." It has gone so far as to take out advertisements critical of Cooper to push him to do more on the regulatory front.
Jim Warren, N.C. WARN's executive director, said that, although his group has not been a central player in the coal ash saga, "we've been tracking it pretty closely."
Warren said you could build a plausible case that many leaders in North Carolina, including Cooper and McCrory, did not focus on coal ash until the 2014 spill.
"But the statement that he (Cooper) fought cleanup, that's a clunker to me," Warren said. "I just don't see any support for it."
In years past, the North Carolina branch of the Sierra Club has endorsed McCrory for mayor. They have endorsed Cooper in this year's campaign for governor mainly, said state director Molly Diggins, on the strength of his work pushing to clean up air pollution.
"From our position, the McCrory administration has actually made it more difficult to get the cleanup issues resolved," Diggins said.
If, she said, Cooper or his department bears any responsibility for slowing the cleanup, "it would be as a lawyer for the administration."
"The only thing I can say about that is I never came across anything that elevated that issue (coal ash) to the level of the attorney general himself, he or his predecessors really," Smith said.
As with Diggins, she said the Department of Justice's main role was providing legal advice to DENR based on the current state of laws and regulations, not driving policy one way or the other.
"I didn't come across anything where any attorney general along the line took an independent position," she said.
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