Last updated: February 25. 2014 8:53AM - 809 Views
Chris Fitzsimon Contributing columnist



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The buzz continues in Raleigh over the shrill, defensive news conference held this week by Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources John Skvarla and officials with the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources in the wake of the disastrous coal ash spill into the Dan River at the site of a shuttered Duke Energy plant.


One of the most disingenuous claims by Skvarla — and there were many — was that he considered environmental groups partners with the department, “on the same side of the table” in protecting the public health from the dangers of coal ash.


But as the Winston-Salem Journal pointed out, Skvarla has often sharply criticized environmentalists. He called the Southern Environmental Law Center a “lawsuit-thirsty outfit” that should not be allowed to set state policy” in a letter to the Journal and he told an audience at the John Locke Foundation that we would all be “wearing loincloths and living in lean-tos” if environmental groups had their way.


Friday the Coastal Review reported that DENR is now trying to block environmental groups from intervening in a state lawsuit challenging federal limits on an air pollutant.


Skvarla seems to have an unusual definition of partners on the same side of the table.


The news conference has drawn widespread criticism for Skvarla’s bluster and his desperate attempt to explain away the cozy relationship between the McCrory Administration and Duke Energy and the sweetheart settlement the department made with the company that required Duke to do little to address the ongoing contamination of groundwater at its 31 coal ash pond sites across the state.


DENR officials acknowledge that all the ponds are leaking toxins. They just don’t seem to want to force Duke Energy to do anything about it.


Reporters were told that all their questions would be answered at the media briefing even if took several hours. But after only an hour of statements from DENR officials and a handful of questions, DENR officials abruptly ended the briefing and left the room.


Here is how the headline and first sentence of the story in the Charlotte Business Journal described the event.


“Tense press conference leaves questions about NC’s coal ash enforcement unanswered” was the headline.


The first sentence of the story: “Top officials of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources beat a silent retreat Wednesday from an hour-long press conference on the Dan River coal ash spill as reporters shouted unanswered questions to their backs.”


That pretty much sums it up — and this from the folks working for the Governor who promised transparency and ending the “culture of corruption” in Raleigh.


And finally there is Skvarla’s boss, Governor Pat McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years before leaving his job to run for governor in 2008. McCrory won’t take a position on potential legislation to force Duke to clean up the coal ash ponds, a solution that makes the most sense.


McCrory says he wants to hear from the experts but the experts are clear about moving the coal ash out of the ponds where it threatens the waterways and into safer, lined landfills. That’s what South Carolina utility companies have done.


McCrory could himself promise to propose legislation in the short session of the General Assembly to clean up the leaking coal ash ponds. He could at least appoint a special task force to develop the legislation that he could lead to come up with a bill to present to lawmakers in May. Have all the experts testify, call in the folks from South Carolina who moved their coal ash ponds to protect their water supply.


He could speak out for federal regulation of coal ash and go to Washington and fight for it and talk about the damage done by the Dan River spill and the ongoing contamination by all of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.


He could prove to us that he’s not beholden to his former employer who donated more than a million dollars to help get him get elected.


He could lead for a change. Governor?


Chris Fitzsimon is the founder of NC Policy Watch.

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