Back in February, a storm pipe ruptured underneath Duke Energy's Dan River Coal Plant in Eden, North Carolina. Within hours, 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the river. It was the third-largest such spill in U.S. history.
In response, North Carolina passed the first-ever law to create rules for disposing of coal ash, a waste product of burning coal for power generation that can contain harmful levels of toxic chemicals.
As part of the law, a commission was created that will make crucial - and expensive - decisions on what to do with the more than one hundred million tons of coal ash spread across 14 sites in the state.
Herbert Eckerlin is one of the commission members. He has been an engineering professor at NC State for nearly five decades. In the early 1980s, he built the Solar House, which later became the NC State Solar Center. He was also a treasurer at the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.
But if anything, he was a bit humble when he introduced himself at the first meeting of the Coal Ash Management Commission.
“My areas of expertise are in energy, including solar,” he said when it was his turn to speak. “I also do a lot of work in energy efficiency and other renewables.”
With these credentials, Eckerlin seems a solid choice to fill the only position on the commission reserved specifically for someone with a science background.
But as a man of science, Eckerlin is outside of the mainstream on at least one topic: global warming.
When he presented at the North Carolina Energy Policy Council in September, he had this to say:
“Unfortunately global warming is not an issue that we can prove or disprove. A little history may be helpful. Between 1950 and 1970 we went through a period of global cooling. Between 1970 and 1998 we had global warming. Over the last 15 years global temperatures have stabilized, while CO2 emissions in China and India have increased dramatically, and U.S. emissions have declined. These recent trends don’t match the global climate model, and we don’t know why. Perhaps the model has to be refined and updated. Furthermore, the CO2 reductions in the U.S. are not sufficient to offset the increases in CO2 emissions in China and India. What to do? More research is needed.”
Eckerlin’s opinion on global warming runs counter to the most recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Unfortunately, the statement is erroneous in many ways,” says Dr. Drew Shindell, a professor of Climate Sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment who helped write the 2013 version of the IPCC report. “Science academies around the world and hundreds of scientists around the world have all reached the conclusion that it is more than 95 percent caused by humans and it’s unequivocal that the planet is warming.”
In a statement to WUNC, a spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said that Eckerlin’s comments on global warming are “outside the scope of his responsibilities as a Coal Ash Commissioner.”
Shindell isn’t so sure.
“If he’s going to go ahead and make statements about other issues like water quality and such, and things that he doesn’t know, then I think the state will be poorly served.”
During the first Coal Ash Commission meeting last week, Professor Eckerlin asked a few questions, but mostly listened attentively to presentations on coal ash storage and disposal methods.
After the meeting, he stood by his statements on global warming not being a “provable issue.” In a short interview, he was asked if his opinions on climate change and global warming were in line with the mainstream of other scientists.
“No, of course, not,” Eckerlin said, chuckling. “That’s obvious. However, there have been a lot of people through history who haven’t agreed with the mainstream. And I feel quite certain that my view is not the dominant one now. And I think people have to come to that realization.”
Eckerlin and his colleagues on the Coal Ash Management Commission will meet again in January and through the next year or so.
The decisions they make could have a deep and wide-ranging impact - as they determine how 108 million tons of coal ash across the state will be classified, transported, and contained so that it won’t pollute our rivers and drinking water.