NC Department of Natural Resources division chiefs (left to right) Dexter Mathews, Tom Reeder and Tracy Davis and communications director Drew Elliot look on as Secretary John Skvarla reviews the department's efforts on coal ash at a press conference Wednesday in Raleigh. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

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Previously: Asheville swept into Dan River coal ash debate

DENR defends its record on coal ash

During a press conference in Raleigh on Wednesday, NC Department of Natural Resources officials (left to right) Dexter Mathews, Tom Reeder, Tracy Davis and communications director Drew Elliot listen as Secretary John Skvarla reviews DENR’s efforts concerning coal ash ponds. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Federal prosecutors have expanded their probe of the state’s oversight of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds, including two at its Asheville Power Station.

A series of subpoenas issued Tuesday and obtained by news organizations through public records requests indicate not only an expanded investigation into N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials’ enforcement of federal laws but also a hard look into the agency’s personnel records.

So far, nearly two dozen current and former department officials, including DENR’s Asheville region supervisors for water quality and aquifer protection, have been included in the subpoenas.

Citing department policy, DENR officials have refused to comment on the subpoenas or the investigation.

The new documents show that a federal grand jury is scheduled to take testimony in mid-March. Ahead of that, prosecutors are seeking personnel and financial records including “documents of payments” and “documents relating to receipt of an item of value” from Duke Energy and Progress Energy and its subcontractors.

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The new twist in the investigation came Wednesday shortly before a press conference with DENR Secretary John Skvarla and his three top deputies. Skvarla took roughly 25 minutes laying out DENR’s case that it has been a partner with citizen groups and proactive in its response to coal ash before he and his top staff were peppered with questions about the probe and reports that the state has been aware of groundwater contamination at the sites and has yet to act on it.

Skvarla denied news reports that asserted DENR stepped into the coal ash fight to prevent local citizen groups from suing in federal court, including efforts to force a cleanup at two ponds at the Asheville Power Station near Arden on the French Broad River.

“Somehow or another, this perception has been created that we are adversaries to the citizen’s groups,” Skvarla told reporters in Raleigh on Wednesday, “when in fact we are all on the same side of the table. We are partners. We all have the same outcome in mind.”

DENR’s decision to sue over the site effectively ended local groups’ attempts to clean up the ponds in federal court. The state later worked out a settlement with Duke Energy, fining the company roughly $99,000 and requiring further study and testing toward eventual mitigation.

In an interview with Carolina Public Press on Tuesday, French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said the agreement worked out between DENR and the Duke was a huge disappointment and local organizations sent DENR thousands of letters in opposition. The amount proposed was far too small to do anything about the ponds, which hold two major ponds of coal ash slurry on 91 acres at the Asheville facility.

“Basically, the settlement was so small it couldn’t achieve the objectives,” he said.

In the wake of the Dan River spill near Eden, DENR has asked the judge in the case to hold the settlement in abeyance.

DJ Gerken

Sitting in his office in Asheville, DJ Gerken, one of Southern Environmental Law Center’s lead attorneys in its coal ash suits, took in the live stream of the conference.

Gerken said he had a difficult time with Skvarla’s attempt to portray his administration as proactive in dealing with coal ash ponds and an even harder time when the secretary said DENR had received little in the way of information or interest in cleaning them up.

Skvarla said it was not until late January, shortly after he took office, that the department — responding to inquiries about groundwater contamination — began to focus on the problems at Duke’s coal ash ponds.

Gerken said that  the department has received numerous inquiries and reports on the danger at the ponds over the years, particularly those in the Asheville area and on the Catawba River.

Environmental groups have documented seeps coming from the ponds and getting into small tributaries that flow into the Catawba and French Broad rivers.

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The seeps, Gerken contended, violate the company’s discharge permits for the plant and are the source of heavy metals contaminating the waters. That alone, he said, should have triggered action by DENR.

But at the press conference Wednesday, DENR officials said they were still assessing the sites. Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder said the sampling was questionable in some cases.

Gerken said regardless, rules require that once contaminants have been found to have moved offsite, the state must remove, treat or control in some way the primary source of the pollutant.

“I can guarantee you that everyday small businesses in this state are dealing with that,” he said. “The only reason Duke is getting an exception is because they made a very big problem.”


Ongoing coverage

Carolina Public Press has reported for more than a year about the coal ash ponds located at Duke Energy’s power plant in the Asheville area. To read that coverage, visit our special report section.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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