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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

WUNC's Greensboro Bureau Chief Talks Coal Ash With MSNBC's Rachel Maddow

the coal ash spill in Jeff Tiberii reports on Eden, NC on MSNBC

"Behold the frog that I am more worried than any other frog in any other place in the world."

Last night, Rachel Maddow began a segment on her MSNBC television program focusing on a little frog that can be seen in a pipe. (Officials have fed a camera into a pipe under a coal ash dump in Eden North Carolina to see if it was leaking.)

The segment was titled "Spoiled River Puts North Carolina Officials In Hot Water," and Maddow's lengthy introduction soon focused on the larger pipe in Eden NC that caused a huge coal ash spill into the Dan River.


Maddow: On Super Bowl Sunday another pipe spilled at that same site, spilling tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The coal ash and the pipes belong to Duke Energy, where it so happened that North Carolina's governor worked for 28 years before he went into politics.

Last week we reported that federal prosecutors had sent a subpoena to North Carolina's environmental agency and to Duke Energy. Federal prosecutors demanding documents and testimony from the state about Duke's coal ash spill into the Dan River

The U.S. attorney's office described the subpoena as part of an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony. Well, that subpoena landed February 10, last week. Now, tonight, we have news of a fresh round of federal grand jury subpoenas, for the Governor Pat McCrory administration in North Carolina.

Federal prosecutors yesterday sent North Carolina regulators a new and much broader demand for documents. The new subpoena is seeking information about the state's regulation of every Duke Energy coal ash dump in the state, more than 30 of them across 14 different sites across North Carolina.

And specifically they want to know about a settlement that the McCrory administration proposed and then backed out of with Duke Energy over some of its coal ash dumps. That settlement happened after environmental groups tried three times to sue Duke Energy last year. Each time, the McCrory administration stepped in, took over the case and then moved to settle it. The state proposed settling two of those cases, where Duke had been proven to be polluting the groundwater. The state just moved to settle two of those cases, with a 50 billion dollar company, for the grand total of a $99,000 fine.

And no agreement that they'd actually clean up the pollution.

The day after the Associated Press published a blockbuster account about that proposed settlement, Governor McCrory's administration yanked the settlement. (They asked to courts to please not approve that deal that they had drawn up themselves.)

So check this out: we now know that in addition to the subpoena about the site where there was that huge spill, in addition to the subpoena about all the sites and the state's proposed settlement that the AP wrote about, in addition to both of those things, we also know this. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed 18 staff members of the McCrory administration. 18 staff people who work at North Carolina's environmental agency. 18 individual subpoena's. They are asked to turn over documents, and to testify. They were served last week, they were not disclosed until today.

But look what the prosecutors are asking for. They're asking all these people who work for the McCrory administration for all documents relating to:

  • Payments to include , but are not limited to cash, check, wire transfer, and stock transactions received by you from Duke Energy and its partners.
  • Documents about any item of value received by you.
  • Also documents about payments or items of value you might have given to them.
  • They also ask for any information about contracts between Duke Energy and any of its affiliates and all these people working for the McCrory administration.

(Now just because a staffer got one of those subpoenas in no way means that it happened, right? It in no way means that the staffer got or gave anything of value to Duke Energy.)
But it does show us what federal prosecutors are looking for in this official criminal investigation in which they have subpoenaed a dozen and a half people who work for the McCrory administration and the administration itself and his former longtime employer.

They appear to be looking to see if anyone got paid off by Duke Energy when they were working in Pat McCrory's administration to supposedly regulate Duke Energy. That appears to be what they are after.

McCrory administration officials pulled out of their press conference on the issue of the subpoenas today while reporters were still shouting questions in their direction. They just walked out of the room.

Joining us now is the Greensboro Bureau Chief for North Carolina Public Radio station WUNC, Jeffrey Tiberii. Mr. Tiberii thank you very much for being with us tonight, I appreciate your time.

Tiberii: Absolutely

Maddow: I have to ask you if I am just a naive outsider and this kind of thing happens all the time in North Carolina politics or whether this is an unprecedented situation.

"This is unprecedented in North Carolina." - Jeff Tiberii

Tiberii: This is unprecedented in North Carolina. This is not something new in the sense that there are 31 coal ash ponds throughout the state of North Carolina. And environmentalists have been warning for years about contaminated groundwater here. And then in the aftermath of some other environmental issues, in West Virginia recently, and also there was a coal ash spill, the largest in U.S. history, in Kingston Tennessee six years ago. Following those events, environmentalists have ... urged the state here to do something. They haven't. But this is all very, very new. There's no precedent for this here.

Maddow: [Recap about the subpoenas] As you were going through these voluminous documents today, what's your sense about what are federal prosecutors looking for here? What potential felonies might be involved here?

"They are looking for illegal payments to state employees who of course can not accept any kind of bribe, or anything that would compromise their judgment." - Jeff Tiberii

Tiberii: As you mentioned, this is a 94 page subpoena that came down today and they are looking for illegal payments, they are looking for sweetening, greasing of the wheels. They are looking for illegal payments to state employees who of course can not accept any kind of bribe, or anything that would compromise their judgment. Of course, the state, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is supposed to be policing Duke. And is supposed to be making sure that the Clean Water Act is in effect. (You know, that Duke isn't violating the clean water act.) We'll see what they find, if anything.

Maddow: In terms of Governor McCrory and how he has managed this issue so far, we saw him get asked about this issue when he was holding press availabilities having to do with winter weather. We saw his administration today hold a press conference, to their credit, but then cut it off in the middle of a lot of people wanting to ask questions, particularly when the questions were getting pretty tough. I would expect that he's a savvy and ambitious politician. He knows that he worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, and that people know that about him, if they know nothing else.

It would seem to me like he's not managing this well, in terms of seeming independent from Duke and seeming like he's handling this issue aggressively. (And that's just my observation from here.) From within the state, how does it seem to you?

Tiberii: This is certainly a big moment for him. This is a very big moment, as you've said big aspirations. Just in his second year as governor of this state. And how is this going to play out, how is this going to affect his political career moving forward?

As for that press conference today, you mentioned it, yes I was there and the reporters, we probably had another 45 minutes or an hours worth of questions, but [the officials] did leave. And the tone today from the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla was  one that was really defensive. He criticized and critiqued some of the media reports that have come out. And he said that, there's just you know misconceptions about the state's relationship with the environmental groups and the citizens groups.

[There was] bit of irony when he said that there's a partnership between those citizens and the state. A reporter did ... ask 'How come if they are partners with you, in this whole thing (the citizens, the environmentalists) [why weren't they] at the table today with you all?'

Maddow: Fascinating.

Jeff Tiberii reports on the coal ash spill in Eden, NC on MSNBC

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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