RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Over the last year, environmental groups have tried three times to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clear out leaky coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured last week, spewing enough toxic sludge into a North Carolina river to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools.
Each time, they say, their efforts have been stymied -- by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
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.
In the wake of last week's massive spill, McCrory touted his track record with Duke over its coal-ash water pollution.
"My administration is the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds," McCrory said, following a private meeting with company officials. "We have been moving on this issue since the beginning of my term and will continue to do so."
The environmentalists suggest his administration's real goal has been to shield the governor's former employer from far more severe and expensive penalties it might face if the cases ever made it to a federal courtroom.
Amy Adams was a regional director at the state environmental agency in charge of enforcing surface water standards for 21 North Carolina counties before she resigned in protest last November. A nine-year veteran of the agency, she said she was directed in her last months to help polluters meet compliance standards, rather than issue violations or fines.
"We have a governor right now that has very close ties to Duke, the state's largest polluter and a major political contributor to his campaigns," said Adams, who now works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices. "Under the new administration, North Carolina has changed the definition of who its customer is from the public and the natural resources it is supposed to protect to the industries it regulates. There's been a huge push away from environmental protection and toward promoting economic growth."
Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.
After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.
His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency's role as being a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he refers to as "customers."
"That is why we have been able to turn DENR from North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut in such a short time," Skvarla wrote in a letter to the editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, published in December. "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."
On the afternoon of Feb. 2, a security guard patrolling the grounds of Duke's Dan River Steam Station discovered that a pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond had collapsed. The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles. The accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history.
The public was not told about the breach until the following day and initial reports provided by Duke and DENR did not make clear the massive scale of the disaster. McCrory made no public comments on the issue for five days, after the spill had grabbed national attention.
Environmental groups and federal regulators had been concerned for years about problems at Duke's 31 coal-ash waste ponds in North Carolina. Those concerns intensified after a 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., where 5 million cubic yards of ash burst out of a basin, covering 300 acres and devastating a nearby river. The cleanup has cost $1.2 billion.