Governor McCrory may want to consider Flint

A few months ago, the state of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality said the water was safe to drink near a coal ash site, only one year after saying it was not. I think many of us were puzzled by this reversal and I am sure that affected residents were in some disbelief.

Apparently, they would have been wise to not believe this reversal per the testimony of Ken Rudo, a state toxicologist. In his testimony, he chastised the leadership of the Department for its reversal saying they were endangering the public and made criticisms of the governor for at least being aware of the change in position.

Last week, the state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, resigned due to the Governor McCrory administration’s “false narrative.” The McCrory administration said Rudo lied under oath and both the state health director and assistant secretary in the Department of Environmental Quality fired off a public statement saying “Rudo’s unprofessional approach…does a disservice to public health and environmental protections in North Carolina.”

Really? I am having a hard time reconciling how being precautious does a disservice to public health. We only need to look north to Flint, Michigan and see what happens when state officials mask the risk of toxic water to a population. Nine current and former state of Michigan officials have been now been criminally charged because of hiding a problem which caused lead poisoning in a number of children and adults. As of yesterday, the problem is still being remedied with an increase in non-lead exposed homes from a low of 9% last fall to 45% as announced by Virginia Tech who is monitoring the progress.

Let’s break this issue in North Carolina down further. A toxicologist testifies under oath to inform the court that people living near the coal ash sites have remained at risk to dangerous toxins in their water. If he is lying, he will go to jail for perjury. His boss, an epidemiologist, resigns in support of the toxicologist’s claims. She left her job at a personal financial cost to protest the misrepresentation to the public. And, we are supposed to ignore these scientists and believe the governor’s administration? It should be noted the governor used to work for and remains a friend of the company whose coal ash is causing the issues.

So, my recommendation would be to believe the scientists who have risked so much to tell the story that the public may have been lied to about the safety of their drinking water. I would also recommend the governor’s administration take this seriously and revisit the issue. Because if they don’t and it turns out that Rudo and Davies are indeed correct, some folks in the McCrory administration may be censured, fired or worse. And, that might include the man running to keep his office, whether he wins or not.

For more on the story prior to Davies’ resignation, please refer to the attached link to a PBS Newshour report.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/state-health-director-may-covered-toxic-water-north-carolina/

Shoot straight with coal miners

I truly feel sorry for coal miners. They do a very hard, dirty and dangerous job in an industry that is in decline. Many are losing their good paying jobs as the industry continues to go downhill as other industry sources replace this source.

They are being promised things that politicians will have a hard time keeping. And, they have been told such promises for years. Leaders need to shoot straight with these hard working men and women. Frankly, I fault their Senators, Congressional Representatives and Governors for not shooting straight as what has been happening has been known for several years.

Coal has been on the decline for several years, primarily due to the fracking boom which produced increasingly cheaper natural gas. The gas burns cleaner than the coal, although it has its own issues. But, the lower production costs caused utilities to switch their coal-fired plants to natural gas. Plus, they do not have to maintain coal ash for many years in the future, even after the plant stops producing electricity.

The next wave became the movement to more renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass. Solar and wind energy continue to plummet in price and are comparable to coal in cost. Yet, these renewable energy sources don’t have the additive long term costs of maintaining coal ash sites, health costs that coal burning creates and the environmental costs of acquisition and transport. Plus, there is ongoing litigation risk, which TVA and Duke Energy are witnessing in spades.

Finally, the concept of a “virtuous cycle” enters in. With solar and wind energy, energy need not be created to produce electricity. With coal and natural gas, energy must be expended through burning to create steam out of water to turn the turbines which turn the electromagnets to create electricity. This less virtuous cycle costs money, which means over time the efficiency of renewable energy will be greater. So, a company may not invest in a coal-fired plant, as it will eventually become less cost-effective. This will be heightened further by improved battery storage and long term, if clean nuclear fusion can be accomplished in large scale, following small scale success in the last two years.

What this means is coal miner jobs will continue to decline and they won’t  be coming back. With climate change, the need to move is great. Unfortunately for these workers, coal is not the future answer. Yet, the leaders in these states should have communicated this a few years ago and worked to get money for retraining and new industries. To me, they have been derelict in their duties. One Presidential candidate has said he will bring those jobs back, which is a false promise. On the flip side, the other party has said let’s focus on retraining and new industries. Bernie Sanders even proposed a bipartisan bill in the Senate to do just that.

On a positive note, the sister and brother-in-law of a coal miner are teaching several displaced coal miners how to computer program. It started small, but has grown with the increasing need and additional funding. The program is appropriately called “Mined Minds.” This is the kind of investment in our coal miners that is needed, as those jobs are going away. Now, the leaders need to step in and do what they should have done a few years ago. It is time to shoot straight with these hard working men and women.

 

 

 

 

We cannot rely on Erin Brockovich to save the day

Three recent events have flooded my brain with the need to call out to Erin Brockovich. She is a real life person portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie by the same name. Not to spoil it for others, but she fights for the disenfranchised whose water has been polluted by an electric utility that denied such linkage. Yet, we should not be made to rely on white knights like Ms. Brockovich, to make business and government leaders do the right thing.

The first event is the most well-known, with the city of Flint facing a huge water crisis when the state of Michigan tried to save money by retapping into water from the Flint River using pipes that had significant lead build-up. The story goes deeper when state officials were aware of issues and did nothing. People complained and they did nothing. The people had tests done by a reputable source and the findings were denigrated. The governor holds much of the blame for letting his state down. Finally, the tidal wave of complaints and notoriety reached a boiling point and something is being slowly done. I think it can be successfully argued that if this was a more affluent community, action would have been taken sooner.

The second event is the continuation of the coal ash leakage in North Carolina. Duke Energy has been ordered to pay another fine for the Dan River coal ash spill last year. In their own documents, the company knew dating back to 1986 that the pipe that breached was not the type that would survive long term. They also failed to spend on at least two occasions $20,000 to fix the pipe as late as 2007. On top of this, the company has continually denied that people living near other coal ash dumps have water that is contaminated. They have been ordered to do something with these sites, but are accused of using faulty data leading them to a conclusion away from moving the coal ash, which is the more expensive solution.

The third event is equally disappointing about a disappointing court case. About thirty Republican-led states are suing the EPA on violating its authority under the Obama Clean Power Plan requirements which phase in changes over time. My state is one of those states, which is odd as we can easily meet and blow past the plan being the 4th most prolific state in solar energy. The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday to freeze the implementation requirement until the court case is completed, a ruling even surprising the complainants. On top of the campaign finance rulings, this may have been the poorest ruling I have witnessed by this court. It is very disheartening and runs counter to what the world needs us to do to address climate change.

We cannot rely on Erin to save the day, We cannot rely on governors to always do the right thing, as it is not uncommon to look to save money at the expense of citizens who are less inclined to vote for them. We cannot rely on business leaders to “be more than profits” and invest in our community and remedy actions when they are harmful. We must pressure our leaders to think about the environment. Truth be told, the groundswell of actions that have been occurring have propelled us forward. In fact, the best thing coming out of Paris is The Breakthrough Energy Coalition which is led by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. But, we need government and industry to do their part and help, not hinder these efforts.

Our biggest risks over the next ten years, as measured by the World Economic Forum, are actions on climate change and our global water crisis (the latter goes beyond Flint, but we cannot waste water). Yet, neither of these topics is discussed by one political party and the other does not talk enough about them to distinguish themselves for voters. We can ill-afford a President who does not address these issues going forward. And, we certainly do not need one who said “global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to steal our jobs” and who unsuccessfully sued the Scottish government to stop them from putting wind mills off the coast of his golf course development.

When things get too cozy – the travails of Duke Energy and DENR

I have been a customer and shareholder of Duke Energy for over thirty years. I have also been a North Carolina taxpayer for the same length of time. For the most part, Duke Energy has been a good company and recognized as such in its industry. Yet it has had a few moments when it got involved with some accounting irregularities in South Carolina and it bought into the gas transmission industry before it exited it with much egg on its face. With that context, I want to share my disappointment in Duke on the coal ash spill that could have been avoided along with their response. I also want to add that criticism of too cozy a relationship between Duke, the NC Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) and our governor is well placed.

As many of you know, Duke Energy is responsible for coal ash leaks on the North Carolina and Virginia border which have spilled coal ash into the Dan River. The “Dan” provides water to several communities in Rockingham County, which ironically is the seat of the Senate Leader in NC, Phil Berger. Rightfully so, Senator Berger has expressed outrage at Duke and their failure to notify people timely and their poor response.  However, the senator is also responsible for helping defang the environmental protections in our state and promoting fracking with an industry loaded committee to study the issue, so he has contributed to our lackluster environmental protection.

Duke is concerned about fixing the problem, but what troubles me is the issue of the coal ash ponds in our state was raised by several environmental groups last year in a lawsuit. They shared many concerns over the dozens of coal ash ponds, but the DENR decided to make it easier by consolidating the lawsuits into one and then settling with Duke for a fine of $99,000 and a commitment to clean things up on Duke’s timetable. That number is correct – a Fortune 500 company was fined the amount of $99,000, which cannot even count as being a slap on the wrist. As of this post, DENR has been sued by the Environmental Protection Agency and copies of emails have been requested to discern any foul play.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that our governor, Pat McCrory was an employee of Duke Energy before winning the governor’s race. However, this cozy relationship has been fairly cozy for some time, predating McCrory’s tenure. But, under the guise of reducing so-called burdensome regulations on industry, the environmental restrictions have been greatly loosened in our state, especially the past three years. Our General Assembly has passed some questionable legislation as well as considering rolling back a requirement to do more alternative energy, before it was beaten back when they realized late how successful the solar energy industry has been here. The Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, noted his surprise that NC was the 5th most prolific solar energy state in the country at the time.

As a Duke shareholder, I have sent two emails to the previous and current CEOs about cleaning up the coal ash ponds. The first one was last spring to Jim Rogers and the second one was this past week to Lynn Good, the new CEO.  She came out in the paper saying the clean-up of the Dan River spill is on Duke (shareholders) while the clean up of other coal ash ponds will be on the customers. This last statement has not sat well with customers. Good is thinking too much like she was still in her old job of CFO and not like someone whose company screwed up and people were harmed. I understand her rationale, but by failing to act last year, Duke threw away the last shred of goodwill on this subject. The governor is banging on the lid of a trash can now, but he is a little behind on the issue in most people’s minds, as well.

Duke Energy, you are better than this. You have done some nice things in alternative energy and shut down some coal plants. That is good and you should be commended. Now, do the right thing and clean up the ponds before the next accident. Do what you should have done last year when you were apprised of the concerns. You should also be thinking about more creative ways to pay for this and not place the lion’s share of the burden on customers. And, please continue decommissioning the coal-fired plants as you have been doing. We need to divorce ourselves from coal at a faster clip as there is no such thing as clean coal and it does not get cleaner sitting in a coal ash pond.

I would also encourage you to link to a much more thorough post in Amaya’s blog called The Brabble Rabble.  Amaya includes greater detail about the defanging of the DENR and other environmental groups in North Carolina. Here is a link: http://thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/politics-north-carolina-style-coal-ash-pollutes-nc-waters-as-regulatory-body-endures-job-and-funding-cuts-duke-energy-promises-to-pass-clean-up-costs-on-to-customers/#comment-2251