On Super Bowl Sunday, a pipe underneath a coal ash pit maintained by Duke Energy cracked, sending over 82,000 tons of ash containing arsenic and heavy metals into the Dan River. John Skvarla, current Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), had this to say in defense last Wednesday:
“[Environmentalists’] only acceptable remedy was dig [the pits] up, move them to lined landfills and cover them…There are environmental scientists who say that is the worst thing that can happen to the environment. The answer is, nobody knows at this point in time.”
Except what Mr. Skvarla said is false. No known environmental scientists see harm in treating coal ash the same as common landfill waste. But this is not the first time Mr. Skvarla has offered up his “nobody knows” defense. On the subject of climate change, he said during an interview, “There is a great divergence of opinion on the science of climate. More dialogue is needed.” Again, Mr. Skvarla is wrong. There is no genuine scientific debate on the subject: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring because of human activity.
Mr. Skvarla’s “nobody knows” philosophy is an intellectually dishonest response which masks an institutional nihilism, a complete lack of faith in either scientific principles or government action that would do anything to hinder the short-term economic interests of companies like ExxonMobil or Duke Energy.
Here’s what a true leader might say: “What happened on the Dan River is absolutely unacceptable. Years of mismanagement of the coal ash pits by Duke Energy and years of failure by DENR to actively enforce violations of the law created this accident. I take responsibility for this. I vow to bring every resource to bear not only to hold Duke Energy accountable, but to reform DENR so that they actively enforce the law and prevent future environmental catastrophes.”
But Mr. Skvarla is not interested in leading. He is more interested in providing evidence for the in-fashion conservative belief that all government is dysfunctional and useless. In the absence of strong leadership, DENR’s response to the coal ash spill will continue to be tone-deaf and inadequate. As a result, public opinion and the General Assembly will be less inclined to support or fund a defective branch of state government. After all, when head-in-the-sand science-phobes like John Skvarla are running DENR, even I, a former DENR legal intern, would agree that funding DENR is a waste of taxpayer money.
We should ultimately turn Mr. Skvarla’s “nobody knows” philosophy onto him. Nobody knows why a man like John Skvarla was appointed DENR Secretary. And nobody knows why he should be allowed to keep his job.