It took a spill of tens of millions of gallons of water contaminated with toxic coal ash into a river used as a source of drinking water to put a halt to what was starting to look like a corporate coup in North Carolina. Duke Energy, the owner of the retired Dan River power plant in the town of Eden where the accident took place in early February, is now under siege, as is the governor who was doing its bidding.
North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cited Duke Energy for “deficiencies” at the site of the spill and later charged the company with regulatory violations at other coal ash storage locations. DENR officials accused Duke, for instance, of deliberately pumping 61 million gallons of toxic slurry into the Cape Fear River several weeks after the Dan River accident. A federal criminal investigation that also covers DENR practices is also reported to be underway.
The actions were long overdue. Based in Charlotte, Duke is one of the largest utilities in the country, and it has long intimidated state regulators. The Charlotte Observer looked into the matter and found that over the past decade the company has been fined only four times during the past decade, paying less than $4,000.
Duke gained even more sway over the agency last year after Pat McCrory took office as governor. McCrory was Duke’s guy — not just in the sense that the company supported him — but because McCrory was a manager at Duke for three decades, including the 14 years he was also serving as the mayor of Charlotte. McCrory is one of the most egregious examples of the reverse revolving door: the movement of someone from the private sector into government.
McCrory brought his corporate sensibilities with him to the governor’s job and set out to make state government even more friendly to companies such as his long-time employer. One of the areas in which this was most pronounced was in environmental policy. With the support of far-right legislators, McCrory appointed businessman John Skvarla to head DENR with the apparent intention of defanging the agency. Agency staffers were told to focus on expediting permits rather than enforcement. As the New York Times has put it:
Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.
McCrory’s apparent use of public office to advance the interests of Duke goes back more than 15 years. In 1997, while mayor of Charlotte, he testified before a Congressional committee in opposition to tougher air-quality standards that would have required Duke to install costly new emission controls at its coal-burning plants. Then he flew home on Duke’s corporate jet. The North Carolina Supreme Court once raised ethical questions about McCrory’s actions in connection with a decision by Charlotte to condemn a tract of land to help Duke Power obtain an easement.
Throughout his political career, McCrory has insisted that there was no conflict of interest between his position as a manager at a major corporation and his role as a public official. The recent coal ash controversies are stretching that dubious contention to the limit. The governor has been forced to take a more positive stance toward regulation while insisting that he has not had direct communications with his former employer about its coal ash problems. The new image took a hit when it came out that the lawyer hired by DENR to represent it in the federal criminal investigation once represented Duke. Echoing McCrory’s frequent refrain about himself, an agency spokesperson insisted that this was absolutely no conflict of interest.
The coal ash spills have created a serious health problem for the people of North Carolina, but they have also served the useful purpose of debunking the corporate paradise that McCrory and his allies have tried to create. Along with the remarkable Moral Monday protests against the retrograde policies adopted by the state legislature, the new awareness of environmental carelessness on the part of companies like Duke is making it more difficult for business interest to masquerade as the public interest.