Living in harmony with the world of nature has never been all that simple for us humans. One could say that the reported misadventures of a couple of folks named Adam and Eve, who had it made until they were laid low by pride, showed as much from the get-go. Our species unquestionably has a privileged status, but if we let that go to our heads, we’re asking for trouble.
We have the intelligence and the power to take advantage of nature’s bounty for our own purposes – food, clothing, shelter and all the rest. Yet we can’t presume that nature – the environment – can be treated with arrogance or disrespect without consequences for those who abuse it.
Was the spill of coal ash that tainted mile after mile of the Dan River, imperiling the river’s whole ecosystem, an example of that abuse? Or was it merely an unfortunate, albeit serious, accident from which we now must learn our lessons and move on? Well, clearly it was both.
It’s easy to see now that the old pipe running beneath a mothballed power plant’s coal ash lagoon – the pipe that, when it ruptured, allowed a torrent of ashy sludge to drain into the adjacent river – was an accident waiting to happen.
Nobody wanted the pipe to break, but this was a risk that should have been foreseen. The abuse lies in the failure of Duke Energy to properly gauge the risk and take preventive steps. Just as culpable are the public officials who failed to insist on those steps despite the responsibilities with which they were entrusted.
Going back several years, the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources had plenty of reason to tighten up its rules for handling the ash produced at coal-fired power plants. A disastrous 2008 spill in Tennessee dramatized how badly things could go wrong, and DENR did begin requiring groundwater tests to monitor for pollution from coal ash ponds. Groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center meanwhile pressed to have the 14 ponds in North Carolina emptied and the ash removed to dry storage.
At their service
Duke Energy, which acquired some of the ponds after its merger with Progress Energy, resisted, and the state declined to get tough. A newly elected General Assembly with a conservative, pro-business tilt was putting all manner of environmental regulation on the back burner. Then last year along came the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, with a philosophy favoring “customer service” even in the oversight of industries whose activities are supposed to be regulated in the public interest.
As the environmental law center moved to take Duke to court under the federal Clean Water Act, McCrory’s DENR short-circuited that effort by reaching its own legal settlement with the company. Here was customer service at work – a relatively piddling fine, and no requirement to empty the ash ponds. Then, on Feb. 2, the pipe broke.
At first there was defensiveness – no, state officials said, they hadn’t gone easy on Duke, which happens to have been the governor’s former long-time employer.
But as the spill’s severity became unmistakable – it included an estimated 39,000 tons of ash, laden with toxic metals — the administration’s posture began to evolve.
Nor is it hard to imagine the mood in the office of Republican state Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate’s most powerful figure as president pro tem. Berger’s Rockingham County home town of Eden virtually wraps around the property occupied by the decommissioned Dan River Steam Station, site of the spill, and the river is a treasured feature of that region along the North Carolina-Virginia border. Without Berger’s approval, it’s a sure bet that the legislature’s anti-regulatory agenda would not have been as successful.
The legislature hasn’t been writing rules for the handling of coal ash. But it has been making it harder for the agencies that do write such rules to carry out their oversight duties.
A “reform” bill enacted last year, and signed by Gov. McCrory, has the effect of telling agencies that their rules are guilty of being unacceptably anti-business until proven innocent. Meanwhile, in a climate of budget austerity due not only to overall economic troubles but also to the legislature’s insistence on business-friendly tax cuts, DENR’s workforce has been pruned. The water resources division especially has been targeted, with 13 percent of its positions eliminated this month in the latest round of cutbacks.
Even when regulations are stringent, they aren’t worth much if there aren’t enough people on the payroll properly to enforce them. The administration says it’s committed to protecting the state’s air and water, but a shrinking staff signals movement in the wrong direction.
The right trade-offs
Whether the issue is coal ash, or air pollution from coal-fired plants that continue to operate, or water pollution tied to land development, the big picture is that our economy and our accustomed lifestyle as Americans are bound to put the environment at some degree of risk. But how much damage are we willing to accept, or inflict, in the trade-offs for jobs, profits and a standard of living tied to enormous energy consumption?
The choice, after all, is not whether to keep on living in comfortably temperature-controlled houses while we use our cars to go virtually everywhere, or to revert to the kind of life that preceded electric power and the internal combustion engine. There’s a middle ground – one that doesn’t sacrifice modern convenience, but that does ask us to be sensitive about the consequences of our demands for energy and land and our very own vehicles.
This is where what could be called the environmentalist ethic comes into play. And it’s hard not to notice as well the overtones from our faith traditions. Mankind may have been given dominion over the earth and our fellow creatures, but at the same time we are expected to be careful stewards of those gifts.
Principles such as those sometimes seem to drift in the stratosphere, high above the tough, practical decisions that have to be made about how best to protect our streams and rivers, our atmosphere, our fragile ecosystems. But this is where people who take seriously the notion of creation care – a priority throughout the faith organizations that make up NC Interfaith Power & Light and the NC Council of Churches — can help shape attitudes and policies.
Yes, we all benefit from plentiful, cheap electricity. No, we don’t benefit when the plants generating that electricity pollute the air, increase the threat of global warming or threaten our rivers with immense quantities of ash. If the Dan River spill, as painful as it was, becomes the catalyst for a rebalancing of North Carolina’s approach to environmental protection – with citizens, not companies, the ultimate “customers” – then that will have to count as progress.