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Muddying the waters / February 12, 2014
In the aftermath of the massive coal ash spill this week on the Dan River, it’s not too hard to see why government officials would be keen to avoid words and deeds that might stoke undue fear among the public. As everyone surely knows by now, a decommissioned Duke Energy plant by the banks of the Dan River in Eden, N.C., suffered a waste pond breach on Feb. 2 that wasn’t plugged until this past Saturday. Over the span of a week, an estimated 82,000 tons of spent fly ash flowed into the Dan, enough to turn the river gray from Eden to the mouth of Buggs Island Lake. The specter of low-grade, long-term river contamination is scary enough to contemplate without anyone in an official capacity crossing the line into alarmism.

But at this early juncture — and that’s all it is — I have to wonder: At what point do the assurances that everything’s OK and fine verge on parody? I can’t be the only person who remembers the scene at the end of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in which Kevin Bacon, cast as a college ROTC student intent on maintaining order, calls out to a welling mob, “All is well! Please remain calm!” Of course, Bacon’s character ended up like one of those Looney Tunes characters, flattened like a pancake once the panicked crowd decided powers of sight justified a mad urge towards flight.

In the case of the Duke coal ash spill, of course, the reality is very different: There’s no mob, only a decent slice of the public that is rightly concerned — and more than a little upset — by what Duke has wrought on the Dan. Hardly what you’d call panic, though. Yet if government officials, company executives, regulators and other key figures in this saga take this relatively muted reaction as a cue to trumpet their own handle on the situation, they might want to stop and think long and hard about that. It’s basically never that I found myself in agreement with Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush-era blowhard at the Pentagon, but surely Rummy was on to something when he prattled about known knowns, known unknowns and all the rest.

We really don’t know much yet about the extent of the damage of the Dan, and to the larger Roanoke River watershed. This fact hasn’t kept some people who ought to know better from offering facile assurances — and fatuous disdain — for the “hysterical” little people. On Facebook this week, Kirby Saunders, the director of emergency services for Halifax County, pooh-poohed the concerns of fellow posters who confessed they didn’t feel comfortable drinking out of the local municipal supply, opting instead to purchase bottled water. A gallon container of spring water costs about a buck-fifty at Food Lion. Regardless of what the officials say — and yes, there’s no particular reason to doubt their statements that drinking water has been kept safe — is it really such an unreasonable life decision to walk out of the neighborhood grocery with a jug in hand when the closest nearby river (and drinking source) is colored dull silver with mercury-, lead- and arsenic-laden fly ash?

This summation from the emergency services director pretty much says it all: “Environuts are running crazy with this story as is the case in all environmental issues.” All I can say in response is: Environuts? Really? I don’t seem to recall any such individuals playing a role in the extremely regrettable release of 82,000 tons of toxic coal ashes and 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan. On the other hand, alas, you can’t really say the same for the regulatory authorities — fellow bureaucrats-in-arms, as it were — who were tasked with protecting the river for human use and as wildlife habitat, and who manifestly failed in that mission. Given the weight of evidence on both sides, I guess I’ll choose outwardly overzealous environuts over complacently incompetent bureaucrats every time.

Sure: It’s just one person spouting off on the Internet. But there were plenty of other places where one could turn this week for less-than-inspiring responses to the coal spill. Mark Estes, Halifax County Service Authority director, compared coal ash contaminants in the Dan to the activated carbon found in the Odor Eaters in your tennis shoes; he then went on to liken the water filtration process to cleaning out a fish tank. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources talked a great deal about their joint cooperation and communication, but lost amid the protestations of diligence were key details about the water sampling that DENR, in particular, conducted on the Dan. (Little noticed is the fact that DENR and Duke did most of their tests together.) Then there’s the matter of DENR’s alleged lethargy in cracking down on past bad practices by the utility. More on that in a moment.

On Saturday, DENR copped to a whoopsie moment when it revealed that samples of raw surface water taken near the spill site and at Danville contained dangerous concentrations of arsenic, contrary to a much more reassuring announcement posted a day earlier. The agency revealed its own mistake, which is fine and commendable, yet the admission hardly inspires confidence. All this said, however, it remains the case that most people who toil away in government got into the business in the first place (at least in part) to do good, to put their knowledge, education and training to use for the betterment of society — whether this means using a Ph.D. in marine biology to assess the lasting ecological impact of riverbed heavy metals, or teaching a child to read, or coordinating the emergency response to disasters that set off alarms of the literal and not figurative variety.

The problem, of course, is that it’s become all too common for the mission of government agencies to be subverted by dodgy political leadership and/or miserly public funding. One of the so-called environut groups patrolling the Dan this week counts among its members a former regional director of North Carolina’s DENR, who quit her job in protest because she felt she was being prevented from cracking down on corporate polluters by her political higher-ups. It takes a lot of guts to do something like that — a mix of courage and conviction that ought to inspire admiration instead of snark from the self-styled smartest guys in the room for whom every public scare is an invitation for know-it-all cynicism. The problem with the so-called smart set is they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are.

Here’s a suggestion: Since there’s already been way too much slagging this week in the waters of the Dan, how about let’s refrain from hurling tired political insults at environmentalists, with their excessive love of the environment, and keep the focus where it belongs — on Duke Energy? Presumably the days ahead will shed light on the question of what the nation’s largest utility could have and should have done to stave off this outrageous breach of company responsibility — to say nothing of whether its failures merit punitive as well as compensatory damages.

It boggles the mind, for instance, that Duke would fight, or at least try to slow-walk, efforts to force the clean up of leftover coal ash ponds at its retired plants, including on the Dan — as various environuts allege. In retrospect, we know the placement of the ash dump by the river was a horrible idea. Duke plainly had been fighting groups that sought to compel action to remove the wastes. Then there’s Duke’s delayed release of information about the spill to the public itself — a blackout that lasted through the first day. At the very least, the company has a lot to answer for.

In an appearance before Danville City Council on Friday, a Duke Energy official apologized on behalf of the company and noted, “We’re better than this.” It was a nice expression of humility — but to be truly humbled, mustn’t one first occupy a high place? The comment suggests that Duke Energy holds itself in kinder regard than the facts may warrant. Yet if this is indeed the case, then company management could ask for nothing better than to sit across the table from government officials who, whether out of a misplaced sense of deference or complacency or what-have-you, can’t seem to muster a decent amount of anger about this assault on the Dan River. The point goes double if the public itself comes to the conclusion that the spill is not such a big deal after all. A reassuring tone to calm nerves is one thing; minimizing the severity of Duke’s transgressions on the Dan is quite another. If communities along the river want to prevent similar disasters in the future, they can start by getting mad as hell about the one that exists in the present.

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