RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory issued an executive order Friday directing North Carolina’s environmental agency to enforce all applicable laws to try to force Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash dumps.
McCrory issued the order hours after the state Senate adjourned without reaching agreement on a proposed plan requiring the company to dig up or cap its 33 ash dumps. State regulators say all of the unlined pits are contaminating groundwater. Coal ash contains such toxic chemicals as arsenic and lead.
The order directs the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to test residential drinking wells near the dumps for coal ash contamination, to halt any violations of the law and mandate remediation plans for all facilities where problems are found.
“I issued this executive order to ensure that we don’t lose any more time in attacking this longstanding problem,” said McCrory, a Republican. “While we are moving forward through this order, it is not a substitute for comprehensive legislation, and numerous issues need to be addressed.”
State and federal laws require regulators to enforce water-quality standards. Environmental groups suggested McCrory’s order was little more than a political stunt orchestrated to give the appearance of action.
“It doesn’t seem to compel (the state) to do anything more than the law already requires,” said Donna Lisenby, global coal campaign coordinate for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Issuing this on a Friday afternoon, and implying it’s a major step to protect North Carolina’s waterways, is totally misleading.”
The governor retired from Duke after 29 years and the company’s executives have generously supported his campaigns. McCrory’s close ties to Duke and his administration’s actions involving his former employer have been under intense scrutiny since a massive Feb. 2 spill at one of the company’s coal ash dumps coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club, said an executive order like the one issued Friday would have reasonably been expected within days of the Dan River spill, not six months later.
“It’s hard to understand why an executive order is needed to direct (the state) to take actions that should already be well underway,” Diggins said.
Within minutes of McCrory’s announcement on Friday, Duke Energy President and CEO Lynn Good issued a prepared statement.
“We remain committed to doing the right thing on coal ash with storage solutions that protect the environment, including groundwater,” Good said. “We will continue to work constructively with regulators and lawmakers to advance an enhanced plan for the long-term management of coal ash in North Carolina.”
In March, Good announced Duke would voluntarily dig up and remove coal ash pits at four of its plants considered to pose the highest environmental risk, including the one in Eden where the spill occurred the prior month. At the time, state officials called Good’s plan “inadequate” because it lacked details about what would happen at the company’s remaining sites.
Following the failure of state lawmakers to approve a coal ash plan, both Duke and the governor signaled Friday they were ready to move ahead with what the company proposed months ago.
“The people of North Carolina deserve better than political stunts ‘demanding’ that Duke Energy do work it has already publicly committed to do,” said D.J. Gerken, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s time for the governor to start enforcing current law against Duke Energy to require real cleanup of its coal ash contamination.”