CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Emails and documents obtained by WBTV show senior officials at Duke Energy edited reports prepared by at least one professor hired by the company to prepare independent scientific reports related to the impact of coal ash ponds on groundwater.
The documents also show a second professor, Dr. John Daniels of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, advised Duke Energy staff while chairing an independent advisory board Duke was required to charter as a condition of its probation stemming from a guilty plea in a criminal case in US District Court.
WBTV requested emails and documents from two professors at UNC Charlotte - Daniels and Dr. Bill Langley - who were paid by Duke Energy to investigate scientific questions related to the company's coal ash ponds.
As a result, the university provided thousands of pages of emails and documents detailing years of the professors' work on behalf of the company.
Environmental attorneys who reviewed the documents obtained by WBTV said the correspondence shows Daniels and Langley preparing scientific reports at the direction of Duke company officials.
The thousands of emails, draft reports and other documents obtained by WBTV cast doubt on the company's claims that Langley and Daniels performed independent scientific work.
Duke hires professors to help guide research, answer regulatory questions
Duke Energy first contracted with UNCC in February 2013 to help model groundwater flow and determine the cause of high levels of several elements in the water at the Riverbend Steam Station in Mt. Holly, NC.
A proposal for that first project shows the research would be led by Daniels with Langley as a co-researcher. The two would work through UNCC's Environmental Assistance Office, which had a mission to "research, design and promote sustainable engineering and management practices to serve government entities, regional small business, and to offer students the opportunity to gain real-world experience in solving pollution problems."
Documents provided by UNCC in response to WBTV's records request show that first contract was for $9,750.
Over the next three years, UNCC would execute six more contracts with Duke or a contractor working for Duke.
Later contracts included sorption evaluation and groundwater modeling for ash basin closure at at least two coal ash facilities, groundwater modeling for corrective action plans and review of modeling for other work performed by a Duke contractor.
In total, the contracts show UNCC was paid $1,071,257 between February 2013 and August 2016.
A majority of the scientific research work was led by Langley, with help from a team of post-doctoral and graduate students.
In October 2014, Daniels took the helm of a board formed by Duke that was supposed to independently review research and advise the company on issues related to coal ash. The $1.071 million figure paid to UNCC does not include compensation for Daniels' work chairing the advisory board.
Because of the independent nature of Daniels' work, he was not supposed to be involved in Langley's research.
As an independent researcher, Langley was supposed to lead his scientific inquiries without influence from Duke or Daniels.
Documents obtained by WBTV show neither professor operated independently in carrying out his work for the company.
Daniels touts 'independent' advisory board while consulting with Duke
Daniels, the professor who first led research projects for Duke back in February 2013, has touted his role as chair of the National Ash Management Advisory Board since the board's creation in October 2014.
Duke first created the board - commonly referred to as NAMAB by Daniels and Duke executives – in October 2014. The company would later be required to maintain the board as a condition of its guilty plea to federal environmental crimes in April 2015.
In addition to Daniels, the board consists of professors and environmental experts from across the country.
Daniels described the board in a letter to Tom Reeder, then the assistant secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, in a letter on April 5, 2016, arguing against a risk classification system for Duke's coal ash ponds.
"The NAMAB is an independent group of experts chartered through Duke Energy and managed by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte). Board members provide advice to Duke Energy, but they are contracted with and report to UNC Charlotte," Daniels wrote.
That same letter concluded with a final reaffirmation of the board's independence.
"And we are independent," Daniels wrote.
But emails obtained by WBTV show staff from Duke Energy scheduled meetings, coordinated the distribution of research materials and facilitated the day-to-day operation of the board; a direct contradiction of what Daniels wrote in his April 2016 letter to Reeder.
Moreover, emails show, Daniels touted his independence from Duke as chairman of NAMAB while consulting with Duke executives to prepare company responses to regulators at NCDEQ.
A calendar invite sent from John Daniels to employees at Duke Energy and an outside engineering company working as a contractor for Duke, HDR, shows Daniels helped organize and participated in meetings to prepare for a DEQ briefing just a week after sending his letter to Reeder touting his independence.
On April 13, 2016, Daniels sent a calendar invite entitled "Prepare for Briefing on Site Assessments and Modeling" to a group of Duke executives that included Ed Sullivan, a manager for the company's waste and groundwater programs; James Wells, vice president and lead compliance officer for coal combustion products; and Michelle Spak, associate general counsel for Duke, among others.
Months early, in January 2016, Daniels sent a different calendar invitation entitled "DEQ Presentation Review – Lisa Bradley's portion" to a group of Duke employees that included Wells, the company's lead coal ash compliance officer, and Harry Sideris, who, at the time, served as senior vice president or environmental health and safety at Duke.
A month before that, in early December 2015, Daniels created a calendar invite entitled "12/14/15 Prep, Plan Adjustment, Status" sent to Wells, Sideris and others.
Included in the calendar invitation was a message that said "Please juggle schedule to make this call. Late afternoon developments in DEQ."
Daniels defended his participation in meetings with Duke executives by saying he took part in them on behalf of the NAMAB.
"We work with Duke engineers so that everyone is clear on what people think and what that viewpoint is," Daniels said.
Pressed further during an interview with WBTV, Daniels said it was appropriate for him to take part in meetings with Duke executives as they prepared for presentations to DEQ at the same time as he was leading a separate, independent board that would also make a recommendation to DEQ regulators.
"The advisory board advises for Duke," Daniels said. "Of course, we're going to work with Duke and present that activity to DEQ."
Daniels worked 'behind the scenes' on Langley research
As more Duke Energy work came to the professors at UNCC, emails show Langley and Daniels discussed how to manage all of the projects.
In an email from Langley to Daniels on August 20, 2014, Langley forwarded an email discussing a new round of research UNCC would conduct for Duke's contractor, HDR.
"As understatement (sic) to say there is a lot here," Langley wrote. "I feel ok about it though given that Tryambak, Jenberu, and Shubha will be on the team, with you behind the scenes."
That email was sent two months before Daniels was announced as chair of the independent ash advisory board.
But, emails and other documents provided by UNCC show, Daniels' new position on the independent advisory board did not stop his involvement in Langley's research.
Daniels discussed his continued involvement approving research conducted by two of Duke's outside contractors in a text conversation with Richard Baker, a Duke engineer, on October 15, 2014.
"Do you see a problem with me sealing the GW models for HDR and synterra?" Daniels asked Baker, referring to whether he should put his PE seal on final reports as engineer of record.
"Any other option?" Baker asked. "Langley does it," Daniels responded.
"If he can do it, I think that would be better," Baker said.
"Will do, agreed. Next question…Should I not be listed at all? Technical reviewer? Responding to (an HDR engineer)," Daniels asked.
"Likely best to not be listed. Let's discuss," Baker responded.
Document: Click here to read the text messages
After that, Daniels texted later to confirm that Langley would be listed as PE of record and that he would be removed completely.
But in an interview with WBTV, Daniels refused to clarify why, if he had no involvement in the ongoing projects, would he have raised the possibility of being listed as the PE of record on the forthcoming work.
Daniels' involvement with Langley's work continued into 2015.
An email from January 27, 2015 shows Langley forwarded an email from regulators at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources - the agency that is now NCDEQ - to Daniels and another person working on the research.
In September 2015, Langley and Daniels forwarded emails to each other as an update on the respective professors' independent work on coal ash.
On September 11, 2015, Daniels forwarded an email with review comments from the NAMAB to Langley.
The next day, September 12, 2015, Langley forwarded Daniels feedback from a separate outside review group that had looked at other reports prepared by Langley.
"I wanted you to receive this from me first. I hope we can meet early next week to discuss," Langley wrote Daniels."
"Yes, lets meet Monday to discuss," Daniels responded.
Daniels defended his continued work with Langley, acknowledging the two professors talked about their coal ash work for Duke but claiming Langley had autonomous control over his work product.
"We're working together. We've got different projects," Daniels said. "He did all the models by himself."
Duke makes 'highly suggested edits' to Langley report
Included in the thousands of pages of documents provided to WBTV by UNCC in response to a public records request was evidence that Duke Energy executives re-wrote portions of a scientific report submitted by Langley.
The report in question was prepared by Langley and entitled "Conceptual Groundwater Modeling for Ash Basic Closure H.B. Robinson Steam Station."
Essentially, Langley was tasked with predicting the impact three different coal ash pond closure options would have on long-term groundwater contamination at the Robinson Steam Station in Darlington, SC.
Emails produced by UNCC show Langley first sent a final copy of the report to executives at Duke on October 16, 2015.
But that didn't stop Duke personnel from making further changes to the documents.
One batch of changes came early on the morning of November 12, 2015.
"Attached are highly suggested edits (in track changes) to the most recent submittal of the GW Model report," Duke closure engineer Brandon Culberson wrote Langley in an email sent at 7:23 a.m. "Please finalize the report and submit a PDF version of the entire document by 10 am."
A review of the tracked changes in the attached PDF show Duke personnel deleted sentences, added full paragraphs and made changes to both the executive summary and conclusions section of the report.
This report - and the changes by Duke - came six months after environmental watchdogs convinced South Carolina regulators to install additional monitoring wells at the Robinson coal ash facility that found the level of arsenic in the groundwater was significantly higher than previously reported by Duke.
Langley's report was evaluating whether any of the three closure options put forth by Duke - none of which included digging up all of the coal ash - would reduce the long-term groundwater contamination.
Many of the highly suggested edits made by Duke appear to take out or change language addressing the very issues currently under scrutiny by environmental watchdogs and regulators.
For instance, the highly suggested edits included deleting the following sentence from the first paragraph of the executive summary:
"Residual constituents remaining in the ash basin that can be mobilized will migrate downgradient until they are depleted."
Later in the executive summary, other highly suggested edits included adding several sentences about the level of arsenic in the groundwater below the Robinson ash basin.
Later in the draft, Duke employees added language regarding the decision to not model conditions after a complete excavation of the ash basin.
"Complete excavation was not modeled, however, the hybrid cover in place is essentially equivalent to complete excavation as material from the eastern two-thirds of the footprint will be removed which represents the vast majority of ash below the groundwater table within the basin boundary," the new language said.
Duke Staff also added an additional bullet point in the report's 'Summary and Limitations' section.
The final report, which included the highly suggested edits from Duke, was produced with a cover page that lists Langley as the sole person who prepared the report.
When WBTV asked Langley about his willingness to let Duke staff re-write portions of a report being presented as solely his work product, Langley first said Duke's changes were merely to help make his writing more concise.
When a WBTV reporter pointed out that many of the changes made by Duke staff added sentences and underlined points favorable to the company, Langley said he wrote those sentences.
"That all sounds like my language," Langely said after a WBTV reporter read him portions of the text added by Duke employees.
"I recognize that text that you're reading and I wrote that," Langley asserted.
Even when presented with both a copy of the email from Culberson attaching the highly suggested edits as well as a copy of the report with said edits, Langley refused to acknowledge Duke staff made significant changes to his report.
"I don't – I guess I haven't really seen – I don't acknowledge that that's evidence," Langley said in response to a line of questioning about the email and document with highly suggested edits from Duke.
Coal ash neighbors, attorneys react
WBTV showed a copy of the email from Culberson with the highly suggested edits to Langley's report to Deborah Graham and Amy Brown, who both live within a half-mile of Duke coal ash ponds and have been vocal critics of the company in the debate over how Duke should close its coal ash basins.
"Who's the expert here?" the women asked.
"That's not independent. That's being part of the corruption," Brown and Graham said.
Both women said the documents uncovered by WBTV were troubling since Duke has routinely cited its scientific experts in giving assurances to neighbors near coal ash facilities regarding the impact of coal ash on groundwater.
"We've known for a long time that Duke has not been very truthful. You can't trust them. Trusting Duke is dangerous to our health on so many levels," they said.
Separately, DJ Gerken, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center - which has active court cases against Duke Energy regarding its coal ash facilities - said the emails and documents uncovered by WBTV confirm a troubling suspicion many already had that Daniels and Langley were working in consultation with Duke.
"Independent scientists? Not so much," Gerken said. "They're definitely relying on Duke Energy for funding and doing work Duke Energy has asked them to do."
Beyond Daniels' work with Duke while coordinating the advisory board or the changes made to Langley's report on Robinson groundwater, Gerken said the emails also show coordination between the scientists and Duke about what models would be used to conduct the scientific research in the first place.
"Duke has hired consultants at private firms and at UNC Charlotte to answer the questions it wants answered. Unfortunately, those questions are self-serving for Duke Energy," Gerken said.
"When you ask the right question, when you ask whether neighbors are threatened, whether rivers and lakes are threatened, the answer you get if you do good science is absolutely yes," he said.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy provided the following statement to WBTV in response to a request for comment: