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Over the weekend, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced that it had screwed up when it previously had said arsenic levels in the Dan River fell within state safety standards immediately after 82,000 tons of coal ash leaked Feb. 2. They didn't. In fact, on Feb. 3, the levels were four times higher than the standard.

If you buy the official excuse, the failure was a reading comprehension error that occurred because the state has two different water-quality standards, one for aquatic life and another, more stringent one for human health:

Pete Harrison, a staff attorney with the environmental group the Waterkeeper Alliance, questions the department’s inability to report these results earlier.

“The bottom line is that people are becoming increasingly frustrated and mistrustful of their government in this case,” he says.

However, even if this familiar story makes you skeptical of the official claim, the far larger problem in North Carolina is that department officials have repeatedly stuck their noses into lawsuits filed under the Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clean up several of its coal ash ponds throughout the state. Plus the problem of having a governor who worked for Duke for nearly three decades. And the problem that the Environmental Protection Agency won't have a coal ash rule in place until the end of 2014.

Read more on the spill and aftermath below the fold.

Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss report:

The state agency has blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the federal act to take enforcement action. After negotiating with Duke, the state proposed settlements where the nation's largest electricity provider pays modest fines but is under no requirement to actually clean up its coal ash ponds.

Clean water advocates have long complained that state regulators are too cozy with the polluters they regulate. But they say that coordination and cooperation has become even more overt since the January 2013 inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years.

After a private meeting with Duke officials, McCrory told reporters last week that his administration had been the first to take legal action over coal ash ponds. But eco-activists view that as a way for the governor to protect his old employers from far greater penalties they might encounter in a federal courtroom.

Coal ash isn't just a problem in North Carolina. The stuff is less regulated than the garbage can under your sink.

Arsenic isn't the only constituent of the ash, which is residue from burning coal. It can also contain arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium and vanadium. Exposure to high enough levels of some of these metals can cause cancer, liver damage and nerve disorders, among other health problems. A Duke University study has found that these toxins can be suspended in air. It also concluded that the  accumulation of toxins in river sediment can poison fish.

Most states do not require coal ash ponds to be lined, and they don't have regulations ensuring good maintenance on the earthen dams that hold back the ash and the toxic stew of chemicals it contains.

Industry generates 140 million tons of the stuff annually. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t classify the ash itself as a hazardous material. In fact, until just two weeks ago, the agency was nowhere near to asserting controls over the stuff. As a consequence of a consent degree agreed to Jan. 29, however, the EPA is now required to issue a final coal ash rule by the end of 2014.

That move was initially sparked by the largest industrial spill in U.S. history. In 2008, 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn. Yes, that's billion with a "b." The spill spread 140,000 pounds of arsenic as well as tons of chromium, lead, manganese and nickel into the Emory River and nearby land. A flood of lawsuits ensued, a TVA report deflecting blame for the spill was excoriated by federal investigators and tens of millions of dollars was spent buying up affected land.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pledged in March 2009 to come up with a rule governing coal ash by the end of the year. But that obviously didn't happen. Continued delays sent the environmental advocacy organization Earth Justice, 10 public interest groups and the Moapa Band of Paiutes to court.

Such legal action wouldn't have been required if corporadoes who don't care about the people who live in the shadow of their hazardous ponds were actually responsible citizens. Or if industries didn't have so many marionettes doing their bidding in Congress. In October 2011, the House voted 267-144 to keep federal officials from regulating coal ash by granting states authority to set their own standards. More than 30 of the votes came from Democrats. The legislation never got a vote in the Senate, but the intent was clear and insidious.

Meanwhile, until the EPA's rule is set, and until enforcement of that rule is undertaken with the strict seriousness it demands, more than 50 highly hazardous coal ash ponds sit behind earthen dams, waiting for negligence, recklessness or an act of nature to unleash more of the nasty, poisonous stuff into some community's water supply. You can be damn sure private wink-wink, nod-nod meetings with industry officials won't change that equation.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Feb 10, 2014 at 12:16 PM PST.

Also republished by North Carolina BLUE and Daily Kos.

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