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Feb 13 2014

NC Govt. Prevented Cleanup of Coal Ash Site

Remember that coal ash retention pond owned by Duke Energy that leaked nearly 30 million gallons of toxic slurry into a river in North Carolina? Well the government agency that was supposed to regulate that company’s facility was instead helping protect it. And the governor worked for Duke Energy for 28 years. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Over the last year, environmental groups have tried three times to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clear out leaky coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured last week, spewing enough toxic sludge into a North Carolina river to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools.

Each time, they say, their efforts have been stymied — by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The state agency has blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the federal act to take enforcement action. After negotiating with Duke, the state proposed settlements where the nation’s largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds.

Clean water advocates have long complained that state regulators are too cozy with the polluters they regulate. But they say that coordination and cooperation has become even more overt since the January 2013 inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years…

Amy Adams was a regional director at the state environmental agency in charge of enforcing surface water standards for 21 North Carolina counties before she resigned in protest last November. A nine-year veteran of the agency, she said she was directed in her last months to help polluters meet compliance standards, rather than issue violations or fines.

“We have a governor right now that has very close ties to Duke, the state’s largest polluter and a major political contributor to his campaigns,” said Adams, who now works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices. “Under the new administration, North Carolina has changed the definition of who its customer is from the public and the natural resources it is supposed to protect to the industries it regulates. There’s been a huge push away from environmental protection and toward promoting economic growth.”

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory’s campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency’s role as being a “partner” to those it regulates, whom he refers to as “customers.”

How entirely unsurprising. Many state environmental regulatory agencies are largely bought off by the businesses more responsible for polluting those states. Here in Michigan, Dow Chemical has long had the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality in its back pocket.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    dogmeat

    See, that’s why we need to deregulate and let the invisible hand of the market take care of this “problem.” If it weren’t for the regulations, our good and honest job creators wouldn’t be forced to spend good, hard-earned money on evil corrupt politicians. They could then use that money to invest and create jobs. We should give the CEOs of these poor, besieged companies large tax breaks to make up for the difficulties we’ve put them through, apologize, and cancel those job destroying regulations immediately.

  2. 2
    savagemutt

    I used to work for an agency under NCDENR and its amazing how blatant the governor and state legislature have been about destroying it. They’ve laid off large numbers of employees and morale has plummeted. They are now led by a climate change denier who also believes oil is a renewable resource. They’ve also increased the amount of “at will” positions throughout state government who can be fired at any time, for any reason.It’s really sad.

    For the south, NC used to be a relatively progressive state. The Republicans are speedily reversing that.

  3. 3
    busterggi

    Business as usual – back when I worked for the Stanley Works in the ’80′s our city’s former mayor was the commissioner of the DEP – no spill, no injury went punished. Wonderful loophole too, the State never issued a permit so the excuse that the company was violating its permit could never be charged.

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    @1, Dogmeat: That’s scarily close to what the libertardians actually say. Poe’s law almost applies.

  5. 5
    A Masked Avenger

    That’s scarily close to what the libertardians actually say. Poe’s law almost applies.

    “Libertarians” are a pretty broad group, so all generalizations are false, but many of them would say that Duke should be on the hook for 100% of the cleanup costs. Their argument about regulatory agencies is not that Duke should be free to pollute, but that we can expect a government agency to do… exactly what it did do. With no real recourse, except the painful and laborious process of hoping that enough voters can be persuaded to put someone in office whom you hope will bring to heel agencies subject to regulatory capture, putting in place officers and agents who will not act corruptly, etc., etc.

  6. 6
    colnago80

    I’m sure that the blogs leading libertarian basher, the Fairfax floozie, will be along with a harangue on libertarians.

  7. 7
    Larry

    Maybe the denizens of West Virginia and North Carolina can get together to compare the sizes of their tumors while ranting about that evil Obamacare.

  8. 8
    Alverant

    MA since libertarians are a pretty broad group saying “many of them would say” is also false. The reason why the government agency failed was because private industry had the freedom to corrupt it. If the government wasn’t prevented from doing its job by conservative pro-business policies, this spill probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Instead no only did it happen but innocent people have to pay for Duke Energy’s profits.

  9. 9
    Pierce R. Butler

    Duke Energy has enhanced the state’s drinking water with a variety of flavorful minerals, and protected the climate by adding to the carbon cycle, yet the liberals just can’t stop complaining.

    Consider a compromise proposal, which only the unreasonable could reject: Duke will charge the state only $66 million for this service – so much less than originally planned! – and will further benefit the taxpayers by committing to contribute the entire sum over the next few years to those business-friendly incumbents and candidates whose pro-growth policies will improve the corporate environment.

    This generous offer will only last until the end of the month, so move fast, patriotic citizens of North Carolina!

  10. 10
    Area Man

    …but many of them would say that Duke should be on the hook for 100% of the cleanup costs. Their argument about regulatory agencies is not that Duke should be free to pollute, but that we can expect a government agency to do… exactly what it did do.

    So what’s going to make Duke pay for the clean-up if not some government agency? The goodness of their hearts?

    The libertarian argument has always been incoherent. Their belief system simply lacks any means to prevent externalities, so they instead focus on the inefficiencies of a method that actually work, and claim that the political will to make it function doesn’t exist when they’re the ones trying to destroy it.

  11. 12
    savagemutt

    So what’s going to make Duke pay for the clean-up if not some government agency? The goodness of their hearts?

    I believe they claim you can just sue them. Because its so easy for a regular citizen to sue a gigantic corporate entity with dozens of highly paid lawyers.

  12. 13
    bmiller

    While I disagree with Masked Avenger’s faith-based assumptions (libertarians always ignore or misunderstand concentrated PRIVATE power) I am also skeptical that regulatory capture can be avoided. The only “answer” I guess is to continue fighting the good fight.

    Maybe a few gallon jugs of coal slurry lobbed through the windows of company executives’ living rooms would do the trick, though? (just kidding…just kidding)

  13. 14
    Area Man

    I believe they claim you can just sue them.

    …as they complain about how litigious our society has become.

    Even in the case of a successful lawsuit, you need some government agency to enforce the ruling. And that agency will always be vulnerable to corruption and regulatory capture. You need public interest and watchdog groups, and informed, civic-minded voters, to keep that from happening. Libertarians tend to serve the opposite purpose.

  14. 15
    D. C. Sessions

    “Libertarians” are a pretty broad group, so all generalizations are false, but many of them would say that Duke should be on the hook for 100% of the cleanup costs.

    Pretty standard Nozickian libertarianism would deal with this kind of environmental damage by private legal action. Individuals who are harmed by (for instance) cadmium in their drinking water could sue Duke for damages.

  15. 16
    A Masked Avenger

    Alverant:

    MA since libertarians are a pretty broad group saying “many of them would say” is also false.

    I said “many,” not “a majority.” Note that “many” is itself a vague term, which is lucky since I don’t claim to know whether it refers to several dozen, several hundred, or several thousand. I don’t have that sort of empirical data.

    Area Man

    So what’s going to make Duke pay for the clean-up if not some government agency? The goodness of their hearts?

    The same libertarians who would make the above claim, would also tell you that they fully support the forcible execution of justice. The conversation would quickly become a rabbit hole, because whatever social construct does the enforcing would, by most people, be deemed a “government,” which makes their position seem inescapably contradictory. There are problems with their position, but one of them isn’t self-contradiction on that particular point: they have a very particular definition of “government,” as well as “aggression” and some other relevant terms, which simply makes all discussion difficult.

    Basically they divide justifiable from unjustifiable violence in a way that is almost unique to themselves. People who agree most closely with them are probably pacifist, and eschew all violence. People who do not eschew all violence, almost invariably condone particular forms of violence that libertarians would condemn. An example I’ve used to turn libertarians against themselves, for example, is assaulting someone for sleeping with one’s wife. Most libertarians seem to approve of this, but their own principles dictate that if the sex was consensual, they have no recourse whatsoever except divorce. Assaulting either their wife, or her lover, would be unjustified. AFAICT extremely few of them would apply their own principles consistently in that scenario.

    bmiller:

    While I disagree with Masked Avenger’s faith-based assumptions…

    Note that I didn’t even mention how they propose to make Duke pay, let alone comment on the viability of their ideas. I only described their objection to the regulatory structure; they see it as inherently vulnerable to capture and other corruption. If I read you correctly, you agree. If so, then we agree–I’m not implying more than I said, let alone advancing their position.

    Area Man, again:

    Even in the case of a successful lawsuit, you need some government agency to enforce the ruling.

    That’s the entrance of the rabbit hole: your definition of “government” and “force” are going to differ from the libertarian’s. You aren’t making a sharp distinction between “aggressive” force (a term of art) and “defensive” force (another term of art, albeit mostly self-explanatory), and would recognize any licit agent of force as a “government.”

    In very, very loose terms, “defensive” force is always licit, and individuals and organizations can always exercise it in various ways. “Aggressive” force is never licit, and anyone exercising it is automatically a criminal, including the government itself. And a “government” is any entity that claims a monopoly on the use of force–and notice that enforcing such a monopoly inherently entails “aggressive” force, which makes it automatically a criminal enterprise.

    Please don’t mistake the previous paragraph for my own position statement! It’s a very rough sketch of the definitions the [particular type of] libertarian [that I've been referring to] is using. What those particular people want is a social organization in which defensive force is deployed, for example to make Duke pay for cleaning up its mess, but where aggressive force is always considered criminal, and therefore a monopoly user of force cannot arise without itself being recognized as criminal.

  16. 17
    eamick

    I can see the new state motto now: The Best Government Money Can Buy.

  17. 18
    Jordan Genso

    @15 D.C. Sessions

    Yep. And then the burden is on the individual to prove that the cadmium wasn’t in the water prior to the spill. But by not having to pay all those burdensome taxes to fund an oversight agency, the people can afford to have quarterly well-tests done so that they know at any given moment what is in their water.

    It’s so much more efficient to let every individual take responsibility for keeping an eye on their drinking water, rather than some bloated government agency full of waste.

    [/snark] in case anyone couldn’t tell

  18. 19
    A Masked Avenger

    Jordan Genso:

    It’s so much more efficient to let every individual take responsibility for keeping an eye on their drinking water, rather than some bloated government agency full of waste.

    I’m going to have to stop answering posts in this thread, or people will become convinced I’m shilling for libertarianism. Hopefully this disclaimer is enough?

    Anyway, a subset of libertarians will say that “every individual keeping an eye on their drinking water” is not the intent at all. Rather, in this specific case, the (private, of course) providers of drinking water would (privately, of course) sue Duke for polluting their water supply. Just as the first reaction to E. coli in the spinach would be grocery stores pulling it off the shelves, and canceling orders to the offending vendor. In neither case out of civic duty, of course, but because it’s cheaper and simpler for them to do this, than to deal with lawsuits from their customers which would be expensive even if they won. I.e., the savvy ones would acknowledge that Walmart doesn’t give a fuck about its customers, but they would argue that neither does it give a fuck about its suppliers.

    That’s not their only answer, by the way–some of them, particularly a few economics professors I can think of, would offer more complicated scenarios in which standing could be bought and sold. Essentially that a law firm could buy my grievance, as well as all my neighbors’, and then sue Duke or my water supplier. Or, consumer interest groups, homeowners’ associations, etc., could represent the collective interests of members. Not worth diving into terribly deeply–it’s just details.

    The common thread in these lines of reasoning is that liability is aggregated as several points in society. Pumping stations serve many customers, and one water source. Grocery stores have many customers, and few suppliers. Private road owners have lots of customers, and can be sued for the aggregate CO emissions from their property. Homeowners’ associations, unions, and other organizations represent many members. Etc. So the theory goes, these individuals will look out for their own interests by suing actors like Duke.

    It’s hard to prove or disprove whether, in practice, these organizations would function in that way. Observing such organizations today doesn’t help, because today they’re likely to call the police, or inform some regulatory agency. We can’t easily test their behavior in a completely different regulatory environment.

    Nevertheless, I think the more fruitful point to attack is the viability of things like private courts. I.e., stipulate arguendam that pumping stations, amusement parks, and other such interests would sue Duke, and then debate whether there’s a viable way to conduct such a lawsuit in the absence of a monopolist of force to, e.g., punish them for missing court dates or ignoring verdicts.

  19. 20
    Area Man

    Masked Avenger — thanks for trying to explain their viewpoint, though I’m pretty well aware of it already. I’m just pointing out how incoherent and ineffectual it is. Libertarian beliefs about the initiation of force quickly run into contradictions and paradoxes once you delve into the nature of government and property (ironically, the only consistent ones are the anarchists). And the Nozickian belief that you can substitute the regulatory state with the tort system just replaces one inefficient, potentially corrupt government institution with another that is even less efficient and just as prone to corruption.

    You get the idea after awhile that the purpose here is not so much to maintain a consistent political philosophy as it is to further the interests of the polluters. I think even Nozick understood this toward the end.

  20. 21
    A Masked Avenger

    Libertarian beliefs about the initiation of force quickly run into contradictions and paradoxes once you delve into the nature of government and property (ironically, the only consistent ones are the anarchists).

    I’m not sure what you have in mind, but your mention of anarchists suggests that it’s minarchy you see as contradictory? If so, I’d say you’re self-evidently right. Having defined all aggression as a crime, the minarchists’ government is obviously “just a little bit criminal,” which is like being a little bit dead.

  21. 22
    savagemutt

    One thing I’ve never understood about the libertarian’s “initiation of force” standard is how they would deal with cases of fraud, where there are no initiations of force.

  22. 23
    D. C. Sessions

    One thing I’ve never understood about the libertarian’s “initiation of force” standard is how they would deal with cases of fraud, where there are no initiations of force.

    Civil lawsuit for recovery of damages. How that works in any of the plethora of cases where the defrauder is effectively lawsuit-proof (e.g. the money is already spent or there is no way to recover more than the cost of suit) is a point of contention.

  23. 24
    Area Man

    I’m not sure what you have in mind, but your mention of anarchists suggests that it’s minarchy you see as contradictory?

    Yes, basically. Anarcho-capitalists are a small minority, and their position is utterly insane, but at least it’s consistent with believing that government “force” and taxation are always illegitimate.

    The more common form of libertarian doesn’t have a problem with government existing and protecting people, they just don’t want it to do things like regulate polluters. Even without the problematic underlying moral precepts, they have no workable method for dealing with externalities like pollution. Probably because they don’t care to.

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