Editorial: Fixing blame won't prevent next disaster

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 05:17 AM

Politics threatens to stand in the way of fixing whatever problems contributed to the disaster that poisoned the Dan River, and that would do nothing but ensure another disaster, possibly much closer to home.

Ever since a corrugated metal pipe running under a pond filled with coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal, ruptured Feb. 2 at a Duke Energy power plant in Rockingham County and sent 39,000 tons of sludge into the Dan River, some Democrats have been hell-bent on linking it in voters’ minds to Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke for 28 years and came into office promising to make government less adversarial for business.

Likewise, some Republicans have been equally dedicated to convincing voters that the previous Democratic administrations must have been aware of problems brewing at Duke’s ash pond and actively ignored them, setting the table for the disaster that would come through no fault of the current administration.

But stories last week in the Winston-Salem Journal, based on an examination of records, indicate that the real culprit was non-partisan bureaucratic blindness.

As early as 1986, an inspection report identified the pipe as being made of corrugated metal, a material that is known to corrode when it comes in contact with coal ash. At least three other dam-safety inspection reports conducted between 1998 and 2007 said that discharges from the pipe should be checked for signs of erosion.

But those reports were never forwarded to inspectors in the field office who were responsible for checking the power plant’s discharges – and they didn’t even know the pipe existed because Duke didn’t have a stormwater discharge permit for it, so the pipe didn’t appear on the maps the inspectors used as a guide.

That’s not nefarious political dealing, that’s just the standard falling-through-the-cracks ineptitude you get when responsibility is divided and delegated as it was in this case.

Until 2010, although water quality was the purview of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, primary responsibility for inspecting the coal ash pond belonged to the N.C. Utilities Commission, which regularly had inspectors check the integrity of the earthen dam that held the coal ash pond back. Those are the reports that mentioned the pipe.

The Utilities Commission, of course, has no responsibility for stormwater discharge permits.

In other words, the people who knew about the pipe didn’t know that the people who needed to know about the pipe didn’t know about the pipe. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.

Ultimately, two circumstances might have helped avoid the disaster.

One is if Duke had gotten the proper stormwater discharge permit, a simple and inexpensive step. Is it likely is it that there was political maneuvering involved in failing to get that, or does it seem more likely that when the pipe was put in, someone forgot to file the right paperwork?

The other thing that might have avoided trouble was if the same people who had responsibility to inspect the dam also were the ones responsible for the water. When you have to keep passing the baton from person to person, you increase the odds of dropping it.

There are lessons to be learned from this disaster, but the biggest ones lie in the 30 years before it happened, not in the weeks afterward.