You will encounter frequent references here to industry’s wholly-owned and -operated Congress, or state legislature, or government agency. Usually, some irony is intended. But in North Carolina, irony is extinct; the state government is wholly owned and operated by Duke Energy. It is still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it is no longer true that the citizens of this Republic give a tinker’s dam about corruption as long as the lights are on, the gas is cheap and there’s football on Saturday. Yet evil is so stupid, the power-mad are so given to wretched excess, that having won everything, they are capable of losing everything, because they cannot rest from destruction.
Duke Energy bestrides North Carolina like a Colossus. It is the largest producer of electricity in the country. It steadily progressed from 46th-largest air polluter in the United States (36 million toxic pounds in 2002) to Number 13 (80 million pounds of toxic junk in 2005). In the 1990s, its tinkering with old, coal-fired generators to enlarge and extend their operations violated the Clean Air Act so often, and so flagrantly, that the US Supreme Court ruled against it — unanimously. (Yes, our supreme court, the one that holds that corporations are people, money is speech and often that pollution is liberty.)
But it is not air pollution that has gagged the hyena — that has revealed Duke as a crowd of jackbooted thugs whose enhanced abuse of their state and its people has driven the victims and their normally supine national government to rise up, clear their collective throats and say “Please stop that.”
Coal ash did it. Coal ash is what you have left after you burn the coal to make the power, and it’s nasty. Not just ash, but a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals — arsenic, lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, other toxic heavy metals — hundreds of thousands of tons of which have accumulated over years and decades without anybody ever figuring out how to dispose of it. They just put it in unlined ponds next to the power stations. Duke has 32 of them in North Carolina. Open ponds filled with death, sitting there, on the banks of rivers, waiting for misadventure.
In the past few months, there has been misadventure aplenty.
Late last year — Leaks from coal-ash pits at two Duke power plants drew what passes these days for the wrath of state regulators; they fined the $50-billion company a total of $99,111 and admonished it to go out there and immediately, um, “study” those pits. Mercilessly.
Early this year — a storm-water drainpipe running directly under a 27-acre coal-ash pit in Eden (I am not making this up) NC, failed and instead of draining rainwater, drained the coal ash pond, into the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border. At 82,000 tons of poisonous coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water, it’s the third largest such spill in the history of the United States. It coated the river bottom with sludge for 70 miles. State regulators decided to take another look at the settlement of the 2013 leaks. Federal prosecutors, aroused from a years-long slumber, opened a criminal investigation into the state regulators actions.
A little later this year — Duke got caught at its Cape Fear plant (you cannot make these names up) pumping contaminated water from a coal-ash pond directly into the Cape Fear River. In the wake of a dump of ten thousand tons of toxic publicity, after receiving subpoenas from a U.S. Attorney, they were out there in broad daylight, deliberately and savagely breaking the law. They had been doing it for months. It was an environmental riot, with looting. The dumping was discovered by the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, which took aerial photos. Thus deprived of wiggle room, now-fearful state regulators issued Duke its 8th citation of the month.
Now, all this has been going on for years. Everyone knew that the coal-ash ponds were steadily leaking toxins into the ground (if you didn’t want that to happen you would line and cap the ponds, like you do with every community landfill). Everyone knew that a flood of any river any time would flush one or more of these ponds into the public water supply — if you didn’t want that to happen you would move them. Yet when Republicans completed their takeover of the North Carolina government last year with the election of Governor Pat McCrory, their first priority seemed to be to take the yoke of government regulation (what regulation? Where?) off the shoulders of the mighty Duke.
Not coincidentally, the new governor had put in 28 years as an employee of Duke, and had been mayor of Charlotte, the company’s home base. On taking office, McCrory’s minions goose-stepped into the offices of the state Department of Energy and Natural Resources to deliver new marching orders. As the New York Times reported in depth a few weeks ago, those orders were to focus on customer service. And the customer, they said, was now the company applying for a permit to pollute, and the service expected was quick, painless approval with no followup. Hence the $99,111 fine.
No one in North Carolina should be surprised that their rivers are running foul. After they turned the legislature over to the Republicans, a new state law forbade state agencies to study or prepare for anything having to do with climate change. Then the people, apparently wanting more of the same, elected McCrory.
What is a little surprising to the rest of us is that the federal government — in the wake of Citizens United, cash-is-speech, money is god and the Koch brothers its only beknighted sons — still has the spinal firmity to begin a criminal prosecution of these criminals. The light flickers, but does not yet go out.