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Republican Legislature, governor shielded Duke Energy from cleaning up tainted groundwater

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But that wasn’t happening. Instead of enforcing the limit, state officials were letting Duke continue to pollute groundwater inside its compliance boundaries around old ash pits without taking any action to stop the contamination. At some plants, regulators even let Duke redraw its compliance boundaries when it looked like contamination might cross the line — a stalling tactic to avoid the cost of cleanup.

Data collected from Duke’s own monitoring wells showed contamination beyond that 500-foot limit at several of its properties, with high levels of arsenic, selenium, lead and other poisonous contaminants found in coal ash.

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After examining results from test wells at the ash sites, the Southern Environmental Law Center found that many exceeded state water-quality standards. Lawyers believed state officials were interpreting regulations to allow the company to profit rather than protect public health and the environment.

On behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Western North Carolina Alliance, the law center asked the state Environmental Management Commission to instruct the state to "interpret the groundwater protection rules as they were written."

The environmental groups wanted the commission to order regulators to force coal-ash operators to take immediate corrective action when toxic chemicals in groundwater exceeded state water quality standards at or beyond the compliance boundary.

The commission ruled against them, so the environmental groups appealed in state court.

That’s when Duke’s lobbyists began reaching out to lawmakers.

George Everett, the director of environmental and legislative affairs for Duke, said the company wanted the law changed to "be consistent with the rules."

"We advocated for the same position that the agency has used for 30 years," he told The AP.

Republicans took control of North Carolina’s legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the inauguration of McCrory as governor last year. That put them in prime position to implement an ardently pro-business, anti-regulation platform.

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In talks with conservative legislators, Duke’s lobbyists framed its problem as a property rights issue.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, one of only two Republican members of the state House to vote against the final version of the bill, recalls talking with Duke’s lobbyists about the change in the groundwater contamination rules.

"They said it was a fairness issue, that they shouldn’t be held responsible for the migration of pollution on their own site, that whatever costs they would need to bear should be in direct relationship of the migration of that pollution off their sites," said McGrady, whose Henderson County district borders some of Duke’s dumps

Working closely with lawmakers, the lobbyists helped craft a provision to conform to the way state regulators had been interpreting the law. The change would allow Duke to contaminate groundwater until it crossed onto a neighbor’s property.

Duke Energy and its executives have donated millions in recent years to both Republicans and Democrats. Though 2013 was not an election year, records show the company continued to give generously as its lobbyists sought to protect its ash pits.

A political action committee underwritten by Duke employees sent another $95,000 to Republican legislators and groups that support their campaigns — nearly five times the amount provided to North Carolina’s Democratic legislators over the same time period

Rep. Tim D. Moffitt, an Asheville Republican who chairs the House Regulatory Reform Committee that crafted the bill, got a $4,000 check, the maximum contribution allowed by state law. Asked this month how Duke’s provision was inserted, Moffitt said he had no idea.

Other GOP leaders interviewed by the AP also said they had no knowledge about who inserted the change.

Duke spokesman Thomas Williams said the company doesn’t discuss its lobbying activities for specific legislation.

"Our PAC has supported both parties over the years, some years the Democrats receive more than the Republicans and vice versa," he said.

McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis insisted that the change in the law didn’t change anything at all.

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