Scott Mooneyham: Regulated and regulators buried by reality

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RALEIGH — An environmental calamity as massive as Duke Energy’s coal ash spill into the Dan River inevitably leads to finger-pointing.

Someone has to pay.

In media coverage and public response, Duke Energy becomes a massive polluter. That it is also the state’s major electricity provider, powering homes and businesses, fades into the background.

The environmental regulators who were on the job when the spill occurred get drilled and grilled. That previous regimes of regulators, and current and previous policymakers, allowed the circumstances that led to the spill becomes a footnote.

As cries grow to do something, explanations that solutions may involve complex calculations get lost in the din.

Regulated and regulator would do well to understand that this is the world they now live in. Complaining about it is not going to change it, nor should it.

The regulators, for their part, don’t seem to get it.

Regulator-in-chief John Skvarla, who heads the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, decided that he would set the record straight recently.

Before cameras and jaded reporters, Skvarla defended an earlier, proposed legal settlement with Duke, which included a $99,111 fine, as an adequate remedy. He spoke about a process, about the potential for more fines if Duke didn’t follow this process.

He also spoke as if the spill was unforeseeable. He talked about how removing coal ash from other sites around the state might not be a reasonable solution.

Of course, the spill was foreseeable.

Since the Kingston, Tenn., coal ash spill in 2009, anyone with any sense has known that the coal ash reservoirs around the state and country represent a threat to people and the larger environment.

No fine and no monitoring are going to significantly reduce that threat.

The harsh reality facing Skvarla, the McCrory administration, and Duke Energy is that the Dan River spill represents a major failure of environmental regulation and policy. When the environment is poisoned to this degree, government has failed.

The responsibility to address that failure, because it is now in charge, belongs to this administration.

Hemming and hawing about blame and living in a past where the earlier settlement was defensible is foolish. The department’s own decision to put the settlement on hold proves the point.

Duke CEO Lynn Good, at least when it comes to the spill, appears to understand the new reality.

She and her company have made clear that they plan to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess.

What Good perhaps has not done is stop listening to the lawyers and acknowledge what will eventually be forced on the company anyway: It has to get the coal ash away from rivers and put where it is not going to poison people and the environment.

No one should labor under the delusion that it will happen quickly. Logistically and financially, moving the coal ash will be complicated.

It is, though, the only adequate response. Regulator and regulated can wake up to that fact or be buried by it.