1/11/2016: Coal ash debate heating up

Despite the recently arrived winter chill, the coal ash debate is heating up fast in North Carolina. This week inCIB.

Executive Watch: Walking on Hot Coal Ashes

As the weather cools down, the debates over handling of toxic coal ash and its pollution are heating up.

Mysteriously Changing Risk Levels: NC’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has released the draft report required by state statute on its risk level analysis for all of Duke Energy’s coal ash storage pits around the state. According to the official DEQ report, slipped into the news stream on New Year’s Eve, just 20 out of 32 storage sites are considered “high risk” for risk of polluting groundwater or surface water. The rankings are critical to state requirements because “high risk” facilities are required by state law to have their ash excavated for removal to storage in a lined, safe facility no later than 2019. “Intermediate” and “low” risk ones can wait until 2024 or 2029, respectively (and in the case of those judged low-risk, possibly not be cleaned up at all).

The fact that only 20 of the storage sites were judged to be “high risk” was immediately assailed by community and environmental advocates, who point out that the draft report leaked to the media just one month earlier recommended that 27 out of 32 ash pits be ranked as high risk.

Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) senior attorney Frank Holleman said, “This is simply an example of politics trumping science and common sense. They’ve either watered down the staff rating, or disregarded them or said they can’t make up their mind.”

Appalachian Voices’ representative Amy Adams agreed, “It is alarming that DEQ leadership altered more than half of the classifications recommended by DEQ’s expert staff in the agency’s own draft report, leaving North Carolinians with the dramatically weakened proposal announced [December 31].”

True to its recent form, DEQ leadership focused its comments on attacking its public critics. “I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data,” said DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart. A more objective observer might instead characterize the leaked report as “not yet sanitized by DEQ political officials’ checks with their bosses at Duke.”

Fortunately, this apparent override of sound silence by another political favor to Duke is not the last word. The public will have its chance to comment and build a record of informed dissent before the decision-making record is legally closed.

Governor McCrory? Governor Good? Who’s calling the shots for state environmental policy?: On a closely related note, the hottest news out of Raleigh last week may well have been the release of an investigative report on an eyebrow-raising private meeting last summer between Governor Pat McCrory, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, and other key state and Duke officials.

According to WRAL News’ Mark Binker’s story, the private meeting took place at the Governor’s Mansion last June 1 between Governor McCrory, his chief of staff, his general legal counsel, DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, Duke CEO Good, and three other high-ranking Duke officials, including its chief legal officer. The closed-door meeting was not publicly announced, and neither state nor Duke officials would provide details of the discussions. The meeting took place during a period of hot legal environmental case announcements involving the state and Duke over pollution fines and cleanup orders, as well as major related rulemakings and legislative debates.

Among other unusual factors, the story points out that the unrecorded meeting included a Governor who had previously been employed by Duke for nearly three decades. Neither the Governor’s office nor van der Vaart’s calendar could point to similar dinner meetings with the leaders of any other company.

NCLCV Director of Governmental Relations Dan Crawford told WRAL, “At a time when issues such as coal ash and renewable energy standards are dominating environmental news, the administration and one of the state’s largest polluters are meeting behind closed doors. The administration that promised transparency and ‘customer service’ is offering neither—unless it considers Duke Energy its only customer.”

SELC’s Holleman asked, “How in the world can the people of North Carolina believe their government is protecting their water from coal ash pollution when the governor and his secretary of the environment are hosting the polluter for a private dinner at the governor’s mansion?”

Editorialists have chimed in with observations about the Governor’s apparent cluelessness toward the unseemly appearance (at best) of his conducting a private meeting between himself, his personal counsel, his Environment secretary, and other key administration officials with Duke’s chiefs at a time when it and the state were embroiled in major legal and environmental case disputes.

Public Comment: Finally, concerned members of the public still have a set of prime opportunities to formally weigh in on the treatment of Duke’s coal ash pits in state-ordered cleanup plans. Public comment meetings will be held at all 14 Duke facilities where coal ash is stored in the state, beginning March 1. A complete listing of the dates, times, and locations of these meetings can be found here.

As those hearing dates approach, NCLCV will continue to track this crucial state environmental concern.

Administrative Watch: Citizens Demand Real State Clean Power Plan

The McCrory Administration’s designed-to-fail state response to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan was thoroughly blasted at three DEQ hearings held in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Wilmington. Over 500 turned out altogether, most recently last week in Wilmington. In Wilmington, NCLCV board member and former Kure Beach Mayor Mac Montgomery told the hearing, “This designed-to-fail plan is wasting taxpayer dollars and wasting our time. As a former elected official, it’s especially disheartening to me to see current elected officials pursue political gains rather than work to reduce dangerous carbon pollution that is impacting North Carolinians every day.”

The good news is that Mac and other concerned citizens can take heart from the response of NCLCV and allied citizen conservation groups, who are now actively working to build upon this record of public dissent against the clear irresponsibility of the draft state plan. The deadline for public comments is this Friday, January 15. To participate in NCLCV’s call for a responsible North Carolina state response to the Clean Power Plan, see here.

Environomics: Solar Rising

One important way to keep track of the prospects for clean energy development is to keep an eye on the economic fortunes of the private sector companies responsible for building and installing new solar energy infrastructure. By that measure, December was a very good time for solar energy.

An index of solar power companies surged in December. The Market Vectors Global Solar Energy index climbed 12.3 percent in that single month. Several individual companies did far better—SolarCity and Sunrun were both up over 77% for the month. In comparison, the S&P 500 average for December was down 1.8%.

The key factor driving the climb was the federal budget, passed in November, which contained long-term extensions for key federal tax credits for solar installations. As we reported last month, experts expect to see enormous additional gains in creation of new solar energy capacity over the coming decade as a result of these moves. Smart public policy can continue to drive good energy results.

Education & Resources: Clean Energy Industry Census

Speaking of clean energy economics, there’s a good free opportunity coming up soon to take a look at the status of the sustainable energy industry in North Carolina. The NC. Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) will hold a free webinar to review the results of its 8th annual Clean Energy Industry Census.

The webinar will be held Monday, January 25, from 2:30 – 3pm. According to NCSEA, the census is intended to “help measure the impact of North Carolina’s clean energy policies and identify where policies are or are not achieving the results policymakers, economic developers, and industry envisioned.”

For details and to register, click here.

That’s our report for this week.

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