Jordan GreenIn a lot of ways it’s hard to figure out where Duke Energy ends and the state of North Carolina begins.

Well known is the story of how the citizens’ group Appalachian Voices prepared a lawsuit in an effort to force the utility to clean up its coal-ash ponds even as the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources sat on the sidelines, only to have the state intervene at the last minute and then settle with the utility on a minimal fine, with no cleanup order.

Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive and the Republican candidate for governor, pledged during his 2012 campaign to make state agencies take a “customer-service approach” toward the businesses they are tasked with regulating.

“Although customer service is a rallying cry of the current leadership, it seems that businesses and industry are considered the only ‘customers,’” wrote Amy Adams, a longtime DENR employee who decided to leave the agency, in guest editorial published in the Raleigh News & Observer in December. The cost of cutting staff while pressuring them to cater to business makes it less likely that they will be available to the public, Adams added.

“Because state law requires DENR to issue permits within a tight deadline, staffers are under great pressure to essentially trust the industry’s word that everything is in order,” Adams wrote. “(The phrase ‘a fox guarding the hen house’ comes to mind.) I did not sign on to my DENR job to wield a rubber stamp.

“A permit is only as good as the enforcement behind it, but under such conditions, on-site inspections and compliance monitoring — not required by law — inevitably will go by the wayside. Even before the budget cuts, the water division was spread thin trying to do inspections on thousands of permits.”

Research by Democracy North Carolina last year revealed that Duke Energy has donated more than $1 million to McCrory’s 2012 and 2008 campaigns for governor, either directly or indirectly. The future governor received more than $300,000 from Duke-related donors. Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association, which spent $10.4 million on advertising and electioneering on McCrory’s behalf, received a total of $761,800 from Duke Energy and Progress Energy, Democracy North Carolina found.

As a friend stated, “North Carolina is a colony of Duke.”

Additional evidence of state agencies being ineffectual and forced to rely on the expertise of the industry they are tasked with regulating comes in an excellent report from Taft Wireback in Sunday’s News & Record.

Before responsibility for regulating coal-ash ponds was shifted to DENR in 2010, that duty fell to the state Utilities Commission.

The commission examined coal-ash reports “mainly to make sure their recommendations seemed sensible and didn’t threaten to disrupt service or raise rates for consumers,” Wireback reported.

“We receive reports and forward them on to the Division of Environment and Natural Resources, who has the expertise to look at those reports and report back to us,” Commission Chairman Edward Finley said in a 2009 commission hearing, according to the News & Record story. “And to the extent they find deficiencies in those reports, we communicate those to the power companies, and hopefully, they are rectified.”

That same year, the engineering firm Paul C. Rizzo Associates submitted a report to the US Environmental Protection Agency characterizing the coal-ash ponds at the Dan River Steam Station as “significant hazard potential structures” where “failure” could cause “significant economic loss [and] environmental damage.”

Records obtained by the News & Record indicate that Duke submitted a report to the Utilities Commission in 1986 indicating that the pipe that would ultimately burst last month and spew coal ash into the Dan River had been “constructed of corrugated metal pipe which would be expected to have less longevity of satisfactory service than the reinforced concrete pipe.”

Less than two weeks after the Feb. 2 spill, using video monitoring, Duke Energy discovered joint separation and “water jets from pressurized infiltration” in a second drainage pipe.

Later, on March 5, State Dam Safety Engineer Steven McEvoy wrote to a Duke Energy executive: “It is general knowledge in the engineering community that [corrugated metal pipe] is subject to corrosion, the intensity of which depends upon the environment of placement. This tends to shorten the design life by reducing wall thickness of the pipe which ultimately leads to failure. Given this and the extraordinary experience at the Dan River plant, it is requested that Duke Energy camera inspect all facilities that have decant structures with CMP components.”

Pity that a regulatory agency responsible for protecting the environment couldn’t have arrived at such a commonsense determination before a catastrophic failure.

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