Spill upends N.C. politics -- but will substantive legislation be the result?

Second in an occasional series of articles.

There's a joke making its way around the state Capitol and legislative buildings in Raleigh, N.C.: "How do you turn a conservative Republican into an environmentalist? Dump 30,000 tons of coal ash in his backyard."

On Feb. 2, a 48-inch stormwater pipe broke under a Duke Energy Corp. coal ash slurry dump in Eden, N.C. Roughly a week later, when the company was finally able to plug the leak, 30,000 tons of waste had spilled into the Dan River.

The spill, one of the largest of its kind in recent memory, shocked the state's political establishment and may have lasting electoral and policy effects.

Republicans, who occupy the governor's mansion and boast comfortable majorities in the General Assembly, are promising legislation to crack down on Duke, even though they came to office with an anti-regulatory mantra.

"For some members of the political leadership, environmental regulation was another way of saying job-killing bureaucracy," said Molly Diggins, head of North Carolina's Sierra Club chapter. Now, she said, "It looks different."

Groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have run ads in North Carolina in the spill's wake, attacking state leaders. Many environmentalists are keen to remind voters that the incident happened on the GOP's watch, particularly under Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke executive.

Green groups after the spill also seized on a proposed settlement between the McCrory administration and Duke over pollution concerns, plus a new rule to fast-track certain permits and change groundwater compliance boundaries. They see the spill as the result of their warnings having gone unheard.

"Instead of protecting our air and water, Pat McCrory's administration worked to block safeguards," said one NRDC spot. "Then cut a sweetheart deal to let industry off the hook."

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, feeling the political heat, pulled away from the proposed settlement. The agency launched a probe of all Duke coal ash ponds, is mulling new requirements for company dumps and is pursuing litigation. McCrory has proposed making funding available for the agency to hire 19 new environmental inspectors.

"I have never seen Duke as without friends in the state Legislature as they seem to be currently," said Diggins. The spill, she said, "has just gotten people past political philosophies and ideologies for a moment."

For its part, Duke executives accepted responsibility for the spill and apologized. But the company is not conceding that it managed coal ash ponds incorrectly. Executives say regulators knew about the company's actions.

In a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in North Carolina just weeks after the coal ash spill, 90 percent of respondents said they had heard about it.


Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for candidates who get tough "with corporate polluters like Duke Energy."

An Elon University Poll conducted at around the same time found that respondents who had heard about the spill were more likely to express concerns about McCrory and state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is now the Republican nominee to take on Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in November.

"We're trying to leverage that," said Dan Crawford, government relations chief for the League of Conservation Voters in North Carolina.

Previous crises have made a difference, advocates say. A large hog waste spill in 1995, which sent millions of gallons of polluted water into the New River, "resulted in a host of new initiatives to protect water quality," Diggins said.

'Legislature unpredictable'

The Dan River spill happened during a politically volatile time in North Carolina. In 2008, President Obama helped his party take control of state government.

Then, in 2010, the state took a sharp turn to the right, when the GOP won control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since the 1870s (E&E Daily, May 22). Voters elected McCrory governor in 2012.

The state Legislature has always been conservative, Diggins said, even when it was run by Democrats. But environmentalists and political observers see many of the newly elected conservatives as different from those who came before them.

They are generally more ideological -- some were elected as part of the tea party movement. Many of them hail from suburban rather than rural districts. Tillis, for example, represents the growing Charlotte area.

Diggins said she remembers conservatives who "grew up hunting and fishing" and therefore placed a high value on environmental conservation. "That voice has been very muted in recent years," she said.

State Rep. Chick McGrady, for example, represents a district south of Asheville. The Republican has held numerous leadership positions with the Sierra Club, including that of national board president. He is now helping craft the coal ash response bill.

The Sierra Club, which has also become more muscular politically since its early days, has targeted the area for ads because of its focus on sustainability issues and protecting its natural beauty.

"Coal ash pollution threatens our drinking water, rivers, lakes and streams," said a group ad. "Yet Duke Energy still hasn't shown the leadership North Carolina needs."

In a recent interview, McGrady was more conciliatory. "I've found Duke to be pretty helpful," he said, expressing optimism about the prospects of legislation. "I have colleagues who are very interested in pushing this issue. I look at it as an opportunity."

There's little doubt that the General Assembly will approve some sort of measure to address the coal ash spill. The question is, how strong will it be?

Soon after the spill, as public anger grew, McCrory and his team, including Department of Environment and Natural Resources chief John Skvarla, increased the rhetoric on Duke. They vowed to crack down on the company and defended their oversight record amid complaints from environmentalists and negative press coverage.

This month, state Senate leader Phil Berger (R) and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca (R) introduced legislation based on language first floated by McCrory soon after the spill. The Dan River runs through Berger's district -- and he's the conservative Republican referenced in the Statehouse joke.

The bill would require Duke to submit plans for dealing with coal ash dumps, among other provisions, but it would not require the company to move all its waste from all its impoundments into dry storage, as many environmentalists want, and it does not lay out any timetable for the cleanup.

Duke CEO Lynn Good has similarly proposed to move the ash from some of its dumps into dry storage. But the company told lawmakers that converting all its slurry ponds into dry landfills would cost several billion dollars. The company has suggested that ratepayers would have to foot at least some of the bill.

"I think McCrory's initial bill was a token, which is what one would expect from someone who worked for Duke Energy," Crawford said. "We're hoping this is an opportunity for meaningful legislation to come forward in a Republican-controlled Legislature."

Apodaca and some other Republican leaders have vowed to strengthen McCrory's proposal.

This week, Democratic lawmakers floated a bill of their own, which includes provisions for shutting down the ash dumps and would prohibit Duke from passing on the cost to consumers.

Duke is working on influencing the legislative process in private while making few comments about it in public. Environmentalist lobbying is also significant.

Elon University political analyst Jason Husser says whoever thinks he knows what's going to happen is just guessing. "This Legislature is very unpredictable," he said.

Husser then ventured to make a prediction, "If I was a betting man, I would say there will not be anti-business regulations that are harmful to industry."

House Majority Whip Mike Hager (R) tells naysayers, "We're looking for a bill where we can walk away from it when it's finished and say that we're satisfied that this problem will be solved."

Hager, who used to work for Duke as an engineer, said lawmakers are not beholden to the company, no matter their connections, campaign contributions or strong lobbying.

"When I made that shift from leaving Duke to being a legislator, my whole shift changed from working for the company to now working for the citizens, and I take that very seriously," Hager said. "McCrory is the same way. He works for the citizens of North Carolina. He doesn't work for Duke Energy anymore."

Environmentalists are not so sure. The Legislature has been in session only two weeks, and they're already battling proposals they say will weaken environmental protections, including a measure called the "Regulatory Reform Act." Fracking is also a point of contention.

'Fits a narrative'

Even though the coal ash issue is hot in the General Assembly, the discussion is more muted in the state's marquee race for U.S. Senate between Hagan and Tillis.

LCV has endorsed Hagan for re-election, even though she has worked to be a moderate voice on Capitol Hill, including on environmental issues. In its scorecard, the group has faulted her for votes dealing with water issues.

Hagan is backing U.S. EPA's effort to set federal standards for coal ash disposal and is concerned that legislation in Congress may not do enough to address legacy sites.

Yesterday, the Environmental Integrity Project released a website dedicated to mapping coal ash pollution problems nationwide. Greens see the North Carolina spill as a catalyst for tougher oversight not only in the state, but also nationwide.

At the same time, Hagan seems more focused on rebutting Republican claims about health care and touting her views on women's issues. Campaign operatives appear to be mulling how to deal with the ash debate.

Husser said it's a potential argument for Democrats. "It fits a narrative that has been floating around about the conservative General Assembly," he said.

But Husser doesn't see the issue as a political slam-dunk, especially if the McCrory administration doesn't get saddled with additional blame.

The political landscape could change if the ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors reveals deep wrongdoing. "Anything that harms the image of the Republican Party in North Carolina will also hurt Tillis," Husser said.

Dallas Woodhouse, head of the group Carolina Rising, which is sympathetic to Republicans, warned Democrats against making coal ash a political issue.

"The Democrats' hands are as dirty as anyone's on coal ash," Woodhouse said. "They let that stuff pile up for 60 years in North Carolina."

Veteran Raleigh-based GOP strategist Carter Wrenn expressed a similar sentiment about the political debate over coal ash.

"It's true Democrats didn't do anything about it for decades, but will that prevent them from demagoguing it?" he said. "The Democrats are going to try to make hay of it; the Republicans are just going to have to deal with it."

House Minority Leader Larry Hall (D), when asked about his party's responsibility, said, "Good question about the past. Unfortunately, it's an emergency now. We bear the responsibility for helping find a solution now based on what we know."

For now, Democrats are in the backseat. Republicans will ultimately decide what happens this year. And the spill's policy and political impacts remain to be seen.

Crawford said that at the very least, "It would not take that much effort to remind legislators of how important clean water is to their communities."

Reporters Josh Kurtz and Daniel Bush contributed.

Twitter: @ManuelQ | Email:

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