Environmental agency points to Gov. Perdue for ‘inaction’ on coal ash

RALEIGH – The gloves are off, and they’re naming names. McCrory administration figures have long made thinly veiled allusions to the Democratic governors who were in power when they say deals were made with Duke Energy to slow-walk groundwater contamination issues at coal-fired power plants. But now, following multiple newspaper editorials saying that North Carolina’s environmental agency was in cahoots with the utility, a top regulator is blaming former Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration explicitly for the lack of pollution oversight.

Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality

Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality

“Most of our frustration is directed at the Perdue administration for its failure to regulate coal ash and its irresponsible policy that blocked our ability to fine Duke Energy for polluting groundwater,” wrote Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder in a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer.

The lengthy letter to the editor stems from comments Reeder made under oath surrounding a contested $25.1 million fine. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, slapped Duke with the fine for contamination surrounding the Sutton Plant near Wilmington, N.C. Reeder expressed outrage at the amount of the fine (he said it was too low) and the fact that Duke was fighting it in court even though the utility has settled a federal pollution case for more than $100 million.

In the deposition documents, Reeder expresses frustration by the effects of a Perdue-era memo from 2011 that show that leadership at the agency developed a policy that allowed Duke to take corrective action instead of face fines for contamination. The agency has pointed to that policy as the reason it was unable to enforce the Sutton fine, the largest-ever environmental fine in state history. Officials say that the memo hamstrung them since Duke’s lawyers were able to show that the utility was following official state policy on the coal ash pond groundwater issue.

Instead, the settlement with Duke fines the utility $7 million for contamination issues at all 14 of its coal-fired plants in North Carolina. The $7 million fine would still be the largest in state history, but it still stands in contrast to the original $25.1 fine for the Sutton plant alone.

Reeder complains in his letter that the News and Observer “failed to mention the 2011 Perdue administration policy in its editorials and extensive news coverage of the settlement.”

The unsigned board editorial from Oct. 11 called Reeder’s comments about the fine “candid and refreshing” and predicted that “things are liable to get a little chilly at the office” for the assistant secretary, apparently misunderstanding the target of Reeder’s comments. The editorial treated Reeder as a whistleblower on the McCrory administration rather than indignant at the Perdue administration and Duke.

Reeder’s letter to the editor clears up that characterization right away.

“Our actions stand in contrast to the Perdue administration’s inaction on coal ash,” wrote Reeder, referring to himself as part of the DEQ leadership team put in place by McCrory.

Reeder, a longtime environmental regulator, was director of a division of the agency not involved with groundwater contamination until the McCrory-appointed leadership combined the two water divisions and put Reeder in charge in 2013. Current environmental secretary Donald van der Vaart promoted Reeder to assistant secretary over all regulatory programs in early 2015.