The deflection of responsibility by Gov. Pat McCrory and his administration "is immoral. It's unjust. It's sinful. And it's time for repentance," the Rev. William Barber told about 100 protesters who gathered across the street from North Carolina's Executive Mansion. "And so we call on this governor and this government on this day, this Ash Wednesday, to see this coal ash spill as a call for us as a state and for them as leaders to repent and to the right thing: Clean up the ash."
"Clean up the ash. Clean up the ash. Clean up the ash," the protesters chanted behind Barber's words as they held signs that read "Disclose financial ties to Duke Energy."
The protest coincided with Ash Wednesday's start of the somber Christian Lenten season that leads up to Easter.
Gov. Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, then retired to make a losing run for governor in 2008 before winning in 2012. In that time, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.
Asked earlier in the day after a meeting in Chapel Hill what he would say to the protesters, McCrory said his administration is taking forceful action toward Duke Energy.
He and John Skvarla, secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, have given Duke Energy until March 15 to provide more information about the utility's coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
"And it's going to be time for the Duke Energy management team to come out of the shadows and let the public know and let the governor know what their plan is to first clean up Dan River and to ensure this won't happen in any other location throughout the state," McCrory said. "As I've expressed, I'm very concerned about the lack of knowledge about the infrastructure that was under the coal ash ponds at the Dan River plant and now the coal ash ponds at two or three of the other plants."
The NAACP will hold one of its Moral Monday protests, which began last year as the General Assembly met, March 17 in Eden along the Dan River, Barber said. Its attorneys are also looking into whether Duke Energy, which he said has federal contracts, is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by putting people of color in danger with its coal ash plants, which are located in poor communities, Barber said.
He added that " ... when you have poisoned the drinking water, when you have put children at risk, when you have put adults at risk for cancer, that's not just an ecological disaster. That's a sin," Barber said. "And on this Ash Wednesday, we declare and say it."
Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert declined comment on the protest. As for McCrory's remarks, Culbert said Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good has stated that the utility is accountable.
The protest attracted the attention of state GOP chairman Claude Pope, who stopped by briefly and told reporters that Duke Energy also contributed to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council said the group will begin airing television ads about the spill Thursday. The ads will run in the Triangle and Triad areas of North Carolina, spokesman Bob Keefe said.