RALEIGH — The state’s chief environmental regulator might well be right that a one-size-fits-all approach to coal ash cleanup might not work.
John Skvarla, who heads the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, recently joined Gov. Pat McCrory to outline a proposal to clean up Duke Energy’s 33 coal-ash pits in the aftermath of the massive spill in the Dan River.
“The engineering and science is going to be a little more complicated than digging them all up and moving them to landfills,” Skvarla said.
The proposal from McCrory would give the department that Skvarla heads authority over how the cleanup proceeds. It would establish priorities and time frames but let Duke propose how each should be closed.
That has environmental groups worried, especially because the governor has yet to produce specific legislation.
What McCrory and Skvarla are saying now is that the approach will be data-driven, that criteria will be set up to help determine how each ash pond is addressed.
Part of that criteria, no doubt, will be the proximity of the ash ponds to rivers and drinking-water supplies, including wells.
But any criteria cannot be confined to the immediate risks posed by coal ash to what we humans might drink today. Allowing poisons to continue to leach into the ground and water, particularly at levels that are known to damage life over the long term, is not acceptable.
A solution that allows that to occur will only have to be remedied again by another governor, another environmental regulator and another utility CEO at some future date.
Whether existing drinking-water wells are endangered today does not mean they won’t be tomorrow.
So Skvarla might be right. Digging up the coal-ash ponds and moving all the ash to lined landfills might not be the best solution in every case. But if the goal is not to end the complete environmental threat posed by the ash pits, he and McCrory have adopted the wrong goal.
The McCrory administration also cannot ignore what has happened in South Carolina. The cleanup there, which came at the prompting of the same environmental groups who were pushing for the ash ponds to be cleaned up here before the Dan River spill, has focused on removing the ash and contaminated soil to lined landfills.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy has already said it will remove ash from two ponds at the Riverbend plant site on the Catawba River north of Charlotte and from those at the Dan River site. The company plans to continue removing ash from an Asheville plant
What should now be obvious to regulator, regulated, environmental advocates and the larger public is that the cleanup is not going to happen overnight. It will be a decade before all the ash sites are closed or made safe.
The massive spill on the Dan River demands action from our elected officials.
But those actions, whether taken today, tomorrow or next year, need to be the start of a lasting fix.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.