When I think of the impacts of special interest groups on democracy, I typically only think of the electoral impacts. I think of the millions of dollars opaquely poured into campaigns and strategy groups and how that translates into Election Day results. I never think about the impacts of campaign finance on drinking water. But, in North Carolina, where 82,000 tons of coal ash leaked from a Duke Energy pipe into the Dan River—a river that is the water source for several cities in Virginia and North Carolina, I can’t help but draw the connection.
Gov. McCrory, who was employed by Duke Energy for almost 30 years, has benefitted immensely from the campaign contributions of the company, and, judging by his recent course of actions, he has definitely returned the favor. His administration reacted to the spill by issuing a press release four days after the incident occurred, urging Duke Energy to bring the situation “under control.” He did not issue any clear directive on how this would be accomplished or reprimand Duke Energy in any way. It wasn’t until 10 days after the leak that the state told people to not touch sludgy material or eat fish from the river. It took a total of five days for Duke Energy to actually plug the damaged pipe. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, whose secretary is a businessman appointed by McCrory, said initial tests of the water showed no deviation from normal levels of temperature, pH and heavy metal levels. Many environmental groups, however, have shown pictures of thick coal ash residue and murky waters as far as 20 miles from where the spill happened. This isn’t the first example of the DENR being negligent in holding Duke Energy accountable for many environmental regulation violations and silencing environment advocacy groups. In 2013, the DENR entered a settlement agreement to keep groups from suing Duke Energy under the Clean Air Act.
All of these sweet deals between Duke Energy and North Carolina government officials came at the low price of about $1 million in campaign contributions. The contributions from Duke Energy started during McCrory’s first campaign in 2008 and have not stopped with his election. Duke and Progress Energy (a subsidiary of Duke Energy) donated $761,800 to the Republican Governor’s Association in 2012, which has poured over $10 million into McCrory’s races since 2008. Non-profit, non-partisan Democracy North Carolina has discovered that Duke Energy has given $437,000 to Renew NC, the shadow McCrory campaign, in 2013 alone. This doesn’t even equate the entirety of Duke Energy’s financial contributions because most of the donations to Renew NC remain undisclosed. Throughout 2013, Duke Energy’s PAC gave contributions to over 30 Republican legislators and Council of State members, in addition to $8,000 to the Republican Party and Committee to Elect Republican Women. The PAC gave only $27,000 to Democratic officials and no money to any Democratic committees.
Duke Energy’s close ties to North Carolina Republicans have not gone unnoticed. The U.S. Department of Justice just launched a criminal investigation against the DENR because of its neglect in handling this spill. Duke Energy didn’t report the spillage until a day after it was identified and the DENR has been remiss in informing the public of just how massive the problem is, putting those who drink the water at high risk of ingesting high levels of heavy metals. The federal government has ordered subpoenas of all information and correspondence exchanged between Duke and the DENR since 2010. Of course accidents happen, but the DENR failed to see the many precautions Duke Energy could have taken to prevent this spill. The pipe that broke was weak and old, plus it was made of corrugated metal instead of reinforced concrete.
The DENR has failed us in almost every way possible—they didn’t make sure Duke Energy took precautions to prevent a leak, they misinformed us of damages and they have been slow to report findings. In the mean time, who is going to deal with the repercussions of millions of gallons of coal ash in drinking water? Our government is not equipped to handle these challenges, because its hands are tied to the donations of Duke Energy and not its constituents.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Monday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.