by Kirk Ross

Sometimes, in hindsight, a week when events seemed to be spiraling out of control doesn’t seem as insane as we imagined.

But not last week. Not by a long shot. In fact, it looks worse.

First, a point of clarification: The press did not “hound” the secretary of the Department Environment and Natural Resources and his top deputies out of the room during a press conference last Wednesday, as some have reported. They were done with us and they left.

And yeah, given an ongoing federal investigation, a river polluted with coal ash and a lot of confusion about who knew what and when, it was kind of disappointing.

After promising two days earlier to sit down with the media for hours, DENR Secretary John Skvarla spent almost half of the sit-down delivering a slow-rolling, 25-minute presentation, much of it focused on dispelling the misperceptions “that had somehow been created” about DENR’s regulation of coal-ash ponds. Skvarla insisted — to a room full of people who’d just spent almost two weeks interviewing  outraged citizens and environmental lawyers and scientists — that DENR was not the adversary of citizens fighting to clean up the coal-ash ponds, but that DENR and the offended parties are in fact “partners.”

His presentation was followed by a contentious, 25 minute burst of questions that was just starting to get interesting when the department’s chief spokesperson called game over.

As the state’s top environmental officials quickly broke for the elevator, they left a lot of questions on the table — questions anyone would have — starting, perhaps, with: What the hell is up with DENR?

Fueling the incident was that shortly before the conference started, news broke that federal prosecutors had dropped another round of subpoenas in a probe that appears to be zeroing in on the relationship between the new, more customer-friendly DENR and it’s biggest customer.

The documents show that the feds have expanded their probe of the department’s oversight of Duke Energy to all 14 of the company’s coal-ash waste sites, about 32 ponds in all, and plan to call more than 20 current and former department officials to testify before a federal grand jury in mid-March.

Ahead of that, prosecutors are seeking personnel files and all communication between regulators and Duke Energy, the company formerly known as Progress Energy and their subcontractors. They also want a lot of financial information, and the subpoenas make it clear that includes things like “payments” and “items of value” that might have come from the companies involved. The subpoenas singled out top officials and regional office supervisors in water quality and aquifer protection throughout the state.

As you can imagine, despite the fact that at the press conference no one at the department would comment on the investigations, there were going to be a few more pointed questions about whether the customer — the largest electric-power holding company in the country — was being friendly in return. Duke officials, by the way, admitted they got another round of subpoenas last week as well, but they’re not saying what’s in them.

Meanwhile, confusion reigns regarding the spill itself as an as yet-to-be determined amount of coal ash flows downriver, and federal agencies get more and more involved. A report late last week from the US Fish & Wildlife service documents coal ash on the riverbed running for more than 70 miles and ash is starting to show up in Kerr Lake, a major drinking water source.

As this story unfolds, it’s clear that it’s not just about one spill or crumbling infrastructure at one set of ponds. We’re starting to learn just how much DENR’s known about groundwater contamination at the coal-ash sites and how little has been done about it. Even without the possibility that folks might have gotten paid off, that in itself appears to violate a federal statute or two.


Quotable quotes

Tom Reeder, the state’s top water-quality official, gave a lengthy presentation on Feb. 17 to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission on the impact of the coal-ash spill on the Dan River.

Once treated, he said, the waters of the Dan would be safe for humans, but probably not so for other species, especially those living on a riverbed strewn with coal ash. Then he said flatly: “If you’re a mollusk and covered with ash then yeah, you’re gonna die.”

Worth noting that among the federally listed species in the Dan River is the James spinymussel, which has been classified as an endangered species since 1988. The Dan is one of only two rivers in the world where it’s found, and yeah, it’s a mollusk.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

🗲 Join The Society 🗲