A Tarheel Tale: Follow the Money

That was the advice of Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein if they hoped to unravel Watergate. It is still the key to understanding most corporate and political bad behavior.

Why is BP, a scant 5 years after befouling the water and beaches of the Gulf, back in business bidding for deep water drilling rights? Because it has deeper pocket to influence government and public perceptions than environmental groups. And because consumers want cheap oil, safety be damned. Drill, Baby, Drill. In short, money talks.

Why was GM fatally slow in admitting there was a problem likely to kill people with ignitions and air bags on some models? Because a company on the brink of bankruptcy and reliant on a government bail out didn’t need bad publicity. And once it ignored signs of trouble for so long the cost of going back and admitting the mess was getting higher every day. Money again.

Why in both cases were government regulators so lax or incompetent about policing the perpetrators? Well, for thirty years a relentless effort has made to demonize government regulation and the nanny state. Funds to do the job have been slashed at every opportunity by legislators whose largest donors are none other than the regulated companies. What kind of regulatory regime would you expect to get in such an environment? Once again, money will find a way.

Which brings us to the Duke Energy – Gov. Pat McCrory scandal in North Carolina. This case is so transparently about business calling the tune for government it’s almost comic. Duke is the nation’s largest electric power producer, headquartered in Charlotte. It has 14 coal fired plants in North Carolina alone which produce tons of toxic coal ash.

In February a catastrophic spill of 82,000 tons of ash from unlined pits built adjacent to the Dan River produced an environmental disaster that has poisoned 70 miles of river. This is business as usual for Duke which has made a habit of creating leaky ash pits alongside rivers and lakes including Mountain Island Lake, a source of Charlotte’s drinking water.

Duke has decided belatedly that the proximity of so much poison to the water source for a couple million people might have been unwise. So it has promised to find a better place to put the ash, this time in lined containments less likely to contaminate ground water. It should only take 5 years or so. Just don’t drink the water until then.

Why did Duke do this at plant after plant? It was cheap to dump ash near the plants, though they are often located on lakes or river which serve as drinking water sources. Cheaper still not to build lined containment facilities. Best of all, there was little threat state regulators would give them a hard time.

But the Dan River spill has caused a wee problem. It became a nationwide news story casting unaccustomed light on the increasingly cozy relationship between Duke and the state government, especially the NCDENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources). Could this chumminess have anything to do with the fact that Gov. McCrory before turning pol spent 28 years working for Duke Power?

Actually, McCrory might as well still be a Duke employee. In fact, he’s the Governor of Duke Energy. The company donated over $1 million to his campaign. It was rewarded with jobs for former Duke executives as Commerce Secretary, head of personnel and chief economic advisor. Not to mention the appointment as DENR head of John Skvala who is a climate change denier on record as believing fossil fuels are infinite and that his department’s job isn’t to beat up on companies that create jobs. Under his watch, he let it be known, DENR wouldn’t obstruct economic growth.

So when dozens of environmental groups combined to sue Duke over its lax and likely criminal behavior regarding coal ash, Skvala stepped in to preempt their suits by having the state sue Duke instead of the environmental advocates. It acted in the guise of environmental watchdog. But this dog was a pet, well trained by its masters at Duke and in the governor’s office to roll over and play dead. The state settled the case with a slap-on-the-wrist fine of $99,000, pretty painful for a $50 billion enterprise.

Obviously the fix is in and the motto of the state of North Carolina in its role as environmental protector is: Thanks for the Money and Spill, Baby, Spill.

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