The environment loses as North Carolina swings right


Elections have consequences. Take North Carolina, a state that has always seemed of two minds, politically. For the most part, the Tarheel State mirrors its Southern neighbors — heavily rural, conservative, and clinging to its traditions. But there is also a progressive bent in North Carolina, especially as more and more outsiders move to the state for its top-flight universities and for its high-tech, R&D jobs. That’s meant a string of moderate Democratic governors in the capital of Raleigh — the very same town that gave the world the right-wing firebrand Jesse Helms.

But in 2012, something changed in North Carolina. With the rise of a stronger conservative media, Tea Party culture and massive spending by GOP millionaire Art Pope, the state — for the first time in its history — elected a Republican governor and a heavily Republican state legislature at the same time. The vote may have been the result of populist, anti-Barack Obama fervor (the president lost North Carolina in 2012, after his surprise win there four years earlier), but the real impact has been to hand the keys of state government over to Big Business. The results have been sad and predictable:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — NO ONE is exactly sure when Duke Energy’s coal ash pit adjacent to the Dan River in north-central North Carolina began leaking toxic coal ash into the waterway. What is known is that by the time the leak was discovered, in early February, more than 39,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river near the town of Eden, N.C. — making it the third largest coal ash spill in American history.

Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium and other pollutants known to be harmful to human health — and unfortunately for the residents of towns along the river, the Dan supplies drinking water to thousands of homes.

Officials at Duke Energy, the largest electric utility in the country, assured families that the tons of coal ash posed no harm to drinking water, but we’ve known for decades that these pits are unsafe. And the Dan River case is not an anomaly: Duke and other major energy companies throughout the country often locate coal ash pits in unlined holes in the ground near waterways, meaning that what happened to us here could happen virtually anywhere.

What is perhaps unique to North Carolina, though, is the response by state regulators and politicians. The Dan River spill didn’t just expose the lax enforcement of regulations in our state — far more significantly, it also exposed the cozy relationship between regulators and the industries they regulate, especially Duke Energy.

The problem starts with the new Republican governor Pat McCrory who, as the story notes, worked with Duke Energy for 28 years, as well as state lawmakers who’ve accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the giant utility. The result have been environmental policies in North Carolina that are not just lax but scandalous. McCrory and legislators eventually allowed the current regs to lapse amid an arduous process to draft new ones, the article points out, and the state budget for environmental protection was butchered.

What the article doesn’t note is some of the other outrageous legislation that is racing through Raleigh, also with little debate. For example, there’s a bill that would protect — you can’t make this stuff up — Big Oil and Gas when they poison people with fracking fluids:

North Carolina lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would have made it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Under the version of the law that passed the state legislature on Thursday, the offense has been knocked down to a misdemeanor. But legal experts say the language may still allow companies to press criminal charges against individuals who disclose what they learn about fracking chemicals—including doctors or fire chiefs.

Known as the “Energy Modernization Act,” the legislation is partly meant to establish protocols for firefighters and health care providers to access information about chemicals during emergencies. However, it also gives oil and gas companies the right to require emergency responders to sign confidentiality agreements. The previous version of the bill, which was introduced on May 15 by three Republican state senators—including a member of North Carolina GOP leadership—called for fines and prison time as punishment for disclosing proprietary chemical formulas.

The bill was softened somewhat — now violators are in line for community service instead of spending time behind bars — and that’s only because of adverse publicity that called public attention to the proposal. Because that’s the funny part: When it comes to protecting the natural environment, North Carolina’s lawmakers and its governor are going way beyond what the public actually supports. Hopefully voters of the Tarheel State will remember what went so far off the tracks in November. Because if there’s anything that North Carolina’s crude assault on the ecology proves, it’s that, yes, elections really matter.

Read more about coal ash pollution in North Carolina from the New York Times at:

Check out the latest on the North Carolina pro-industry fracking fluids legislation from Mother Jones:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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