Over the past year, environmental groups have made multiple efforts to use the Clean Water Act to force Duke Energy to clean out coal ash dumps, but their efforts were thwarted every time by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The relationship between state regulators and energy companies has become even cozier since the inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke employee, the Associated Press reports.

The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources three times blocked citizen lawsuits against Duke Energy by intervening and asserting its own authority. “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,” according to the AP.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican, was an employee of the energy company for 28 years. After Duke Energy spilled tens of thousands of gallons of coal ash into the Dan River last month, McCrory boasted that his administration “Is the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds.” However, environmentalists feel the administration has actually shielded the energy company from more severe penalties that it might have faced in federal court.

Since McCrory first ran for office in 2008, Duke Energy, its PAC, and its executives have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory’s campaign and affiliated groups that supported him. After winning North Carolina’s gubernatorial election in 2012, McCrory appointed other former Duke employees such as Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, who worked for Duke Power Company (Duke Energy) for more than 17 years and was the youngest and first female vice president in the company’s history.

“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,” Amy Adams, the former regional director at the state environmental agency responsible for enforcing surface water standards told the AP. “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.”

Last week, Duke Energy spilled between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The leak was discovered by a security guard who noticed the water in the coal ash pond was low. The first public notification of the spill came from Duke on Monday afternoon, 24 hours after the leak was first discovered.

In 2009, an EPA investigation found Duke’s 53-year-old Dan River ash pond dams to be “high hazard.” The investigation also found other indicators of poor upkeep at the Dan River site. Officials noted “continued movement” and “seepage” on the bank of the primary ash basin facing the river.

On February 4, Waterkeeper Alliance took water samples from the Dan River downstream of the spill. Testing of the samples found an arsenic concentration higher than the EPA’s water quality criterion for protection of fish and wildlife from acute risks of injury or death and more than twice as high as the EPA’s chronic exposure criterion for fish and wildlife, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance. The arsenic concentration was nearly 35 times greater than the maximum contaminant level EPA standard for drinking water.

“Duke could have avoided contaminating the Dan River and poisoning Virginia’s water supplies if it had removed its toxic ash heaps years ago after being warned by the EPA,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance.

The company has also been criticized for taking four days to release its heavy metals water test results.

Image via: Waterkeeper Alliance

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.