North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla presided over an hour-long press conference today in which he and some of his staff tried to put the best possible face on the ongoing Duke Energy coal ash disaster. WRAL.com  will have a video of the entire event up online shortly.
While a fleet of journalists are still sifting through all of the statements and answers to their questions, it’s hard to see how Skvarla — whose main claim seemed to be that he’s been doing everything in his power on the coal ash issue, including, he said, partnering with environmental advocacy groups — helped himself very much.
The bottom line on the whole mess remains unchanged:
- There’s an ongoing environmental catastrophe in the state.
- The agency in charge of protecting the environment has been slashed and demoralized by the Governor and his Secretary.
- The Secretary has, contrary to his claims of “partnership,” publicly derided environmental advocates and never included them in the enforcement process on the subject of the catastrophe.
- The giant corporation causing the damage — the nation’s largest utility — is one that made $2.7 billion in profits last year and that spends lavishly on political influence every year.
- Last year, the agency in question cut a sweetheart deal with the utility on the very subject at issue — coal ash — in which a trifling fine was assessed and no other meaningful requirements were imposed.
- The Governor himself worked for the utility giant for 28 years before getting elected to statewide office and owns substantial stock in the company.
- Previous administrations also did a mostly lousy job on the subject and also kowtowed to giant utilities.
- There is still no plan to clean up the state’s numerous coal ash ponds — many of them larger than the one that failed.
A few minutes ago, the good people at the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club  issued the following response to Skvarla’s press conference:
DENR Press Conference Delivers More Questions Than Answers
State Agency Offers Murky Responses to Coal Ash Questions
RALEIGH – In an unusual news conference earlier today, DENR Secretary John Skvarla and a team of DENR officials offered seemingly inconsistent and incomplete answers about how the agency has been handling coal ash issues and groundwater contamination in general. While apparently intended to put to rest questions about the McCrory administration’s handling of the coal ash spill on the Dan River, the press conference instead raised new questions about how much confidence the public can place in this administration’s ability to ensure clean water.
Noticeably lacking at today’s event was any commitment by DENR officials to address groundwater contamination at all 37 coal ash ponds at 14 sites in the state. Instead, Division of Water Resources Director, Tom Reeder, noted that DENR has worked with Duke Energy to provide alternative water for people who have contaminated wells from coal ash instead of cleaning up the pollution.
After viewing the press conference, Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the NC Sierra Club issued the following statement:
‘Noticeably lacking in today’s press conference was any stated commitment by the administration to remove coal ash from unlined lagoons next to our waterways. If the McCrory administration feels it needs additional legislative authority to compel action, will the Governor then propose a legislative solution?’
‘The coal ash spill on the Dan River was completely foreseeable and preventable. Whether we are talking about coal ash or Jordan Lake, this is what happens when environmental problems aren’t confronted head-on. The public pays the price for the government’s failure to act.’
‘It’s the government’s role to protect public health, safety, and well-being. Coal ash ponds are unlined holes in the ground where chemicals seep into and threaten our groundwater. North Carolinians need to have confidence that the state environmental agency is on the job. We cannot afford excuses or foot dragging.’