REPORT: Network News Ignoring Toxic Coal Ash Spill In North Carolina

A massive spill of toxic coal ash in a North Carolina river on February 2 has been entirely ignored by ABC, CBS and NBC. The spill has led to a federal investigation and allegations that the state's Governor -- who worked for the corporation behind the spill and has received substantial campaign donations from it -- has been too lenient on the company, which was discovered to have spilled coal ash into the river again on February 18.

North Carolina coal ash spill via Waterkeeper Alliance, Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

After Toxic Spills, Questions About Leniency Toward Company From Governor With Ties To It

Coal Ash Spills Have Led To Unsafe Arsenic Levels In River. Following a massive spill of coal ash (a byproduct of coal-fired power plants that contains toxins including arsenic), the Associated Press reported that officials say the North Carolina river is unsafe to touch and that the toxic coal ash in it is “burying aquatic animals and their food”:

North Carolina officials said Tuesday that groundwater containing unsafe levels of arsenic apparently leaching from a Duke Energy coal ash dump is still pouring into the Dan River, which is already contaminated from a massive Feb. 2 spill.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources ordered Duke to stop the flow of contaminated water coming out a pipe that runs under a huge coal ash dump at its Eden power plant. A nearby pipe at the same dump collapsed without warning two weeks ago, coating the bottom of the Dan River with toxic ash as far as 70 miles downstream.

State regulators expressed concern five days ago that the second pipe could fail, triggering a new spill. The water coming out of that pipe contains poisonous arsenic at 14 times the level considered safe for human contact, according to test results released by the state on Tuesday.


In the wake of the initial spill, public health officials issued advisories telling people to avoid contact with the river water and not eat the fish.


Officials said the coal ash is burying aquatic animals and their food. The ash, created when coal is burned to generate electricity, could also clog gill tissues in fish and mussels. [Associated Press, 2/19/14, via Huffington Post]

NC Governor Worked For Corporation Behind The Spills, Received Donations From It. Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC) worked for the large company behind the spill, Duke Energy, for 28 years before running for Governor. The governor, and groups supporting him, has received over a million dollars in campaign donations from the company, according to the Associated Press. Some allege that his administration has been too lenient on the company, as NPR reported on February 20:

North Carolina officials have tested the groundwater near Duke ash ponds and found high levels of toxic metals since at least 2010. Officials didn't act until early last year, just in time to prevent a suit from Holleman's organization.

Two months later, the state proposed a settlement. Duke would pay less than $100,000 in fines and conduct studies of the water, which could take years. Resident Mark Levi says that's not enough.

“I think big business has a lot of pull on what happens and how things happen, and let's be honest, Duke Energy is a big player here in Charlotte. They're a big player here in Charlotte and the Southeast,” Levi says.

Regulators are reevaluating that settlement after this month's spill. But Levi distrusts how the current administration has protected water quality. Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke for 28 years, and the company has been a major campaign donor. McCrory told reporters earlier this week he's given Duke no special treatment.

“I'm very proud of the job we've done as governor, in that regards, to any company in North Carolina,” he said.

He cut off further questions.

Since McCrory took office last year, the state environmental agency has changed significantly under its new secretary, John Skvarla. Amy Adams spent nine years working for that agency.

“There was this big emphasis put on customer service, but at the same time as the customer service push came about, Skvarla also redefined who our customer was and said that the customer would be the industries and the businesses that we regulate,” she says. [NPR, 2/20/14] [Associated Press, 2/17/14, via StarTribune]

Duke Energy Is Expected To Pass Along The Cost Of Spill To Residents. The Associated Press further reported that Duke Energy, which recently experienced increased profits, is expected to pass on the cost of the spill to its electricity customers -- rather than its shareholders -- if rate hikes are approved by a utilities board appointed by Gov. McCrory:

Meanwhile, Duke Energy announced Tuesday that its fourth-quarter profits jumped 58 percent after officials in North Carolina and other states approved hikes in the rates customers pay for electricity. The company had revenues of $24.6 billion for 2013.

George Everett, Duke's director of environmental and legislative affairs, told state legislators this week that the company is sorry for the spill and will be accountable.

Any costs incurred because of the cleanup will likely be passed on to ratepayers, not shareholders, he said.

“We have paid absolutely no attention to costs, to this point,” Everett said, responding to a lawmaker's question about who will pay. “We're focused on stopping the discharge and initiating the remediation of the river. But when costs do come into play, when we've had a chance to determine what those costs are, it's usually our customers who pay our costs of operation.”

It would be up to the N.C. Utilities Commission to approve any new rate hikes for Duke. Members of that board are appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked at Duke for 28 years. [Associated Press, 2/19/14, via Huffington Post]

ABC, CBS, NBC Entirely Ignored Spill

ABC, CBS, And NBC Have Not Covered The Coal Ash Spill Once. Since the massive spill on February 2, the three major network broadcasts have not covered it once, according to a Nexis search:

Media Ignored Toxic Coal Ash Spill

Sunday Shows Hosted NC Gov. Without Challenging Him On Spill. Both CBS' Face The Nation and ABC's This Week hosted Gov. McCrory on February 16. On CBS and ABC, he stated that rather than addressing climate change, he has been “spending [his] time cleaning our air, cleaning our water and cleaning our ground” and “concentrat[ing] on cleaning the environment,” respectively. No one on either show challenged McCrory about the massive spill earlier that month. [CBS, Face The Nation2/16/14] [ABC, This Week2/16/14]

By Contrast, PBS Covered The Spill And The Governor's Ties To The Company. The February 17 edition of PBS NewsHour aired a full segment on the spill -- the only network coverage given to it, according to a Lexis-Nexis search. NewsHour hosted Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, who mentioned that Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC) “worked at Duke Energy at 28 years before retiring to run for governor” and that the company has donated “about $1.1 million” to “McCrory's campaigns and groups that support him.” [PBS, PBS NewsHour, 2/17/14]

METHODOLOGY: On February 20, we searched ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS news transcripts in Lexis-Nexis for “coal” since February 2.

Photo at top via Waterkeeper Alliance, Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

UPDATE (2/25/14): On February 21, NBC Nightly News devoted a segment to the coal ash spill and Gov. McCrory's ties to Duke Energy. ABC and CBS have still not covered it, according to a Nexis search through February 24.