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In My Words: Coal ash legislation shows the political system can work

Associate Professor Dave Gammon gives credit in regional newspapers to North Carolina lawmakers who recently passed a law that helps prevent future coal ash spills like the one earlier this year that polluted the state's Dan River.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun and the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.


Associate Professor Dave Gammon

Coal ash legislation shows the political system can work
By Dave Gammon - dgammon@elon.edu

Our water supply is now safer thanks to coal ash legislation passed during the waning hours of this summer’s session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Despite its flaws, and despite Gov. Pat McCrory’s concerns over how to execute the legislation, the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 guarantees something meaningful will be done to dispose of the mountains of coal ash, produced by coal-fired power plants, currently held in 33 unlined dumps across the state.  Environmentalists should draw at least three lessons from the bill:
First, the best time to enact meaningful environmental legislation is immediately following a disaster.
The dumping of millions of tons of coal ash residue by Duke Energy over the last several decades was never a mystery. It took February’s 39,000-ton coal ash spill in Eden, however, for us to take the ever-expanding environmental problem seriously.
If state lawmakers had not passed a bill this session, the coal ash problem would have likely been ignored indefinitely. A long and sad history demonstrates the decline of political will as environmental tragedies become distant memories.
Hurricane Katrina may have been the costliest storm in U.S. history, but the stream of financial resources for reconstructing levees outside New Orleans dried up with each passing year. The levees are done now, though engineering experts agree they will not withstand another Katrina. Hurricane Sandy likewise turned heads for several weeks. It just wasn’t long enough for us to restore the New Jersey wetlands that would have protected homeowners against the storm’s onslaught.
Environmentalists should strike hard while the iron is hot.
Second, the Coal Ash Management Act teaches that even Republicans can get behind environmental legislation.
Democrats may have a better reputation of championing environmental causes such as reducing greenhouse gases and harmful algal blooms, but it was Republicans who pushed through the coal ash bill. In contrast many Democrats dragged their feet, and a few even voted against the bill.
To be fair, some Democratic dissenters felt the legislation did not go far enough to protect the environment. It is also probably true that some Republican lawmakers simply responded to prevailing  public opinion during an election year and were not motivated by environmental concerns.
Nevertheless, this year taught us that even diehard conservatives can rally behind environmental causes. In fact, Republicans have designed many wonderful environmental solutions. They invented national parks. They also reduced acid rain dramatically through an innovative market-based cap-and-trade system that regulates sulfur and nitrogen emissions. Clearly conservatives can coexist with conservation.
Finally, addressing tough environmental problems requires tough choices.
The root of the coal ash dilemma, after all, is not an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue. We consumers want affordable power. Right now burning coal is the cheapest way to get it. Environmentalists who assume solar and wind could easily substitute for coal need to more seriously consider alternative points of view. I love solar and wind, but they are not as cheap or as convenient as burning coal…at least not yet.
Republicans were correct to grant Duke Energy the chance of passing on to its customers some of its cleanup costs – currently estimated to be about $10 billion, or about $1,000 per resident of North Carolina. Some liberals have demanded cleanup costs be assimilated entirely by Duke Energy and its shareholders. I am skeptical, however, that such a massive sum of money could be squeezed from Duke and its shareholders.
Furthermore, when power companies pass on environmental cleanup costs to customers, it sends an important and powerful message – that consumers must pay all the costs associated with the electricity they want.
If generating electricity results in the production of arsenic-infested coal ash, why should consumers not have to pay for its proper disposal? In a capitalist society, we simply cannot have our cake and eat it, too.
So here is my toast to the first meaningful government legislation ever to address the coal ash disposal problem.
Dave Gammon is an associate professor of biology at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
9/16/2014 9:55 AM