By Tara Bansal.
On February 2nd, Duke Energy caused the third largest coal ash spill in US history when 30,000 tons of ash was spilled into Dan River after a stormwater pipe collapsed. The ash, a common byproduct from power plants, is generally kept in basins to minimize leakage. However, not only did the arsenic-containing toxins contaminate drinking water sources for communities in West Virginia, but it also polluted food sources and buried aquatic animals in more than five feet of ash.
Compared to the magnitude of the spill, the repercussions were little more than a slap on the wrist. The effects of the dump were massively downplayed and, after paying underwhelming fines, Duke Energy made no concrete promises to clean up past or future spills and nebulously claimed that they would begin shutting down other plants in the future. However, the legitimacy of these claims is questionable – the plant that recently cracked had been “inactive” since 2012. Further, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) neglected to give Duke Energy- the nation’s largest electricity provider- any mandates to correct the spillage.
This isn’t the first of Duke Energy’s environmental disasters; it has past been criticized for annually releasing over thirty-six million pounds of chemicals into the air and for years, small environmental groups have attempted to sue Duke for pollution infractions, thrice in 2013 alone for violations of the Clean Water Act. However, these groups were silenced by the “federal jurisdiction” of the DENR and after assuming the cases in state court, DENR often allowed Duke Energy to skim by. So often, in fact, that the proposed $99,111 settlement in response to the coal spill earlier this month sparked backlash from the US Attorney’s Office, which opened a grand jury investigation on both Duke Energy and DENR. Among those being investigated is North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory; not only did McCrory work at Duke Energy for twenty-eight years but he also received over a million dollars from the corporation in support of his campaign. Despite his claims to be “the first [administration] to take legal action,” political collusion has allowed Duke Energy to forgo responsibility for environmental and health disasters.
As the investigation progresses, it speaks to the broader political climate: North Carolina’s energy politics are just a microcosm of our nations truly polluted environment. All too often, corporations invest in lobbying efforts in state capitals rather than safe practices in reservoirs. Koch Industries, a manufacturing conglomerate, has spent over $50 million to successfully lobby against serious limits on greenhouse emissions. The five largest oil companies- Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips- have collectively been one of the main donors of the Republican Party. The result: the lack of a nationwide carbon tax and every 2012 Republican Presidential candidate but Jon Huntsman denying the existence of climate change.
In response, small environmental groups often find themselves unable to reply. They lack the infrastructure, capital, and influence to properly launch attacks against big corporations and Super Pacs. Meanwhile, the organizations responsible for protecting environmental claims- such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- have been found guilty of collusion. “Sue and settle” is a common practice of the EPA in which corporations are fined relatively small sums for large environmental disasters. According to the Government Accountability Office, millions of dollars in attorney fees settle on the backs of taxpayers and the Chamber of Commerce has referred to the EPA’s “sue and settle” policy as one of the “most controversial, economically significant regulations that have plagued the business community for the past few years.” Not to mention, regulations adopted by governmental agencies often allow for far too many loopholes. For instance, according to the Clean Water Act, natural lakes and rivers can be deemed “waste treatment systems” rather than “waters”, removing legal mandates to these regions.
This begs the question: Who is protecting our environment? Just like Duke Energy’s stormwater pipes, our political method of solving environmental disasters is broken. It’s imperative that the government begins profound efforts to solve an under-corrective system. By restricting lobbying efforts by large corporations or providing small pro-regulation groups with equal opportunities for lobbying, guidelines could prevent politicians from being unduly influenced towards inaction.
It’s also critical that the government create renewed policies: heightening the standards they’ve previously held for “contamination”, creating proportional fines, and mandating that investments be made to clean polluted areas and create safer practices in the future. Although it took years, the precedent currently being set forth by the Attorney General’s Office on their investigation of Duke Energy is one that will likely resonate among state departments across the nation. Further inquiries can help to protect environmental claims from political collusion.
Unless the government puts forth genuine intentions and serious efforts, we will be stuck in the rubbish for a long time to come.