- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

April 2

The Charlotte Observer on Duke Energy and coal ash removal:

If you care about safe water for all, you should be celebrating the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to order Duke Energy to excavate coal ash from its power plant sites in the state. It was the right call for communities that for too long have been vulnerable to the environmental impact and health threat of coal ash contamination.

But now comes the harder question: Who should pay for it?

Monday’s order, if not successfully appealed by Duke, means that the utility will have to drain all 31 of its N.C. ash ponds and excavate millions of pounds of coal ash, the Observer’s Bruce Henderson reports. Duke had proposed a less expensive option of draining and capping the ash ponds or taking a hybrid approach of removing some ash and using smaller caps. The company warns that a full excavation of the ponds will cost billions more, and it will want customers to pay the bill.

That call will be made by the seven-member N.C. Utilities Commission, which decides when and how much Duke can raise its rates. One bad sign for your electricity bill: Last year, the commission agreed with Duke that customers should pay a $546 million tab to close coal ash sites around the state. The commission did fine Duke $70 million for mismanaging coal ash, which dropped the total Duke could recoup from customers to $476 million. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has vowed to appeal the commission’s $546 million ruling.

Duke argued then, as it surely will argue again, that it followed industry standards in managing its coal ash ponds, and that customers should share the responsibility of Duke complying with state regulations that govern its operations. There didn’t seem to be much sharing going on last year, however, as the Utilities Commission granted Duke practically all of its request, despite staff estimating that the utility already was saving $210 million per year thanks to 2017 tax cuts from Congress and President Donald Trump.

The decision also didn’t reflect that Duke knew its handling of coal ash created a potential hazard for years. Instead of acting responsibly and doing what N.C. DEQ is requiring now, the company chose to deal with the waste in what appeared to be the cheapest way possible. That has resulted in disastrous spills and breaches and, according to one report, some of the worst ash-contaminated groundwater in the U.S. near Duke’s Allen plant on Lake Wylie. Given the years of warnings about coal ash hazards, Duke’s claims that it was merely doing what other utilities did rings hollow.

We appreciate that Duke, like any business, wants to raise prices to accommodate new expenses. The company has, for years, provided reliable electricity at a relatively low cost. But the Utilities Commission should weigh the burden rate hikes place on low-income customers, and it should consider how Duke has wasted years that could have been spent dealing with the coal ash properly. Duke’s shareholders, not its customers, should pay the price for those mistakes. At the least, the burden should be distributed more equitably.

Online: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article228723029.html


April 3

The Fayetteville Observer on the state labor commissioner

Elevator rides without Cherie Berry aboard just won’t be the same. We’ll miss all those ups and downs we’ve had with her for the past two decades.

Berry has served five four-year terms as the state’s labor secretary, but she’s best known for putting her photo on the inspection certificates that are posted inside every one of the 28,000 elevators in the state. Putting her picture on the certificates was a stroke of political genius, making her one of the most easily recognized political figures in the state, in a position that until she took office largely ran under the radar:

The Labor Department does a lot more than inspect elevators, of course. Its most important duty is watching over safety regulations in private industry and government. Berry has taken a Republican approach in that part of her job, working with companies instead of fining them for safety violations. It worked, she says, pointing to a downward trend in workplace injuries and illnesses during her nearly 20 years in office.

But Berry, who’s 72, has decided to step down and let someone else take the Labor Department reins. She announced her decision early, so likely candidates will have plenty of time to plan a campaign. Jessica Holmes, chair of the Wake County commissioners, announced earlier this year that she’ll seek the Democratic nomination. We expect there’ll be more. It’s hard to pass up a chance to take all those elevator rides with so many interesting people.

Online: https://www.fayobserver.com/opinion/20190403/our-view-berry-stepping-off-elevator


March 29

The Herald-Sun of Durham on a canceled light-rail project:

In the end, there was nothing light about the Durham-Orange light rail project. At an estimated cost of $2.76 billion, it was a heavy lift. And this week its frustrated and weary supporters finally had to let it drop after years of effort and $130 million in spending.

There’s no shame in the project’s failure. It was a sincere and inspired effort. But there is cause for concern about what its demise says about the strength of the state’s and region’s commitment to mass transit and how a lack of transit options might shape and constrain the Triangle’s future.

What may be most notable about the project and its fate is that it tried to overcome - and eventually fell to - a fractured political landscape. This wasn’t the regional commuter rail system that was first considered for the Triangle. Wake County didn’t join in. So Orange and Durham counties went ahead with a light rail system. Their voters approved a 1/2 cent sales tax to support the project and engineering and design work got underway for an 18-mile line that would connect Chapel Hill and Durham.

The project, already narrowly based in the Triangle’s two smaller counties, then got rocked by the General Assembly. Funding was supposed to be 25 percent local, 25 percent state and 50 percent federal, but Republican lawmakers balked. They cut the state’s commitment to no more than 10 percent and then no more than $190 million, about 7.7 percent. The state also made its funding contingent on local and federal funding being in place and imposed a deadline of this November.

Durham and Orange counties gamely tried to make up the lost funds, but the project’s balance was lost and its time frame narrowed. With the project wobbling, Duke University knocked it over by refusing to give up land for a light rail corridor near its medical center. The North Carolina Railroad also balked at sharing key parts of its right of way.

The board of trustees of GoTriangle, the regional agency overseeing the project, voted on Wednesday to end the project. And the dream, or the boondoggle, depending on your perspective, died.

U.S. Rep. David Price, as chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, was well positioned to give secure federal funding for the light rail project. His statement on its end is worth noting here: “With the Triangle growing and developing rapidly, we cannot afford to sit on our hands and watch as our roads clog with traffic and prospective employers choose to locate elsewhere. Unfortunately, for now we have been stymied by unreasonable conditions imposed by the General Assembly and by the failure of essential participants to reach agreement.”

There were reasonable objections to the project’s course, its technology and its rising cost. But there will be resistance to any great public undertaking.

If key parties stand separate, the Triangle will choke on its lack of options for getting from here to there. It’s not an attractive situation for major employers who might consider the Triangle, and eventually it will be discouraging for people who are here.

That a transportation project failed is one thing. That the legislature and the Triangle failed to cooperate is more worrisome. Without cooperation - much more than without light rail - the Triangle isn’t going anywhere.

Online: https://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/article228605144.html

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