NC regulators defend governor's coal ash clean-up plan

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJune 5, 2014 

The head of the state’s environmental protection agency and his top deputies aggressively defended the governor’s coal ash cleanup plan in a Senate committee Thursday.

Still smarting from criticism that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been lax dealing with coal ash, Secretary John Skvarla took a sometimes defiant stance insisting that Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal was based on science and engineering, not special interests.

“The state of North Carolina is in charge of this process – no one else,” Skvarla said.

Skvarla was still settling scores from this past spring when the Dan River spill illuminated protracted legal wrangling with environmentalists and the McCrory administration over coal-ash regulation, which was followed by a federal criminal investigation of the agency and Duke Energy, the governor’s former employer, and extensive news coverage.

“The governor’s blueprint is not about politics,” he said. “It’s about protecting the environment. It’s about creating specifics, flexibility and workability to get this done.”

Skvarla said the plan would close a loophole that makes it easier to dispose of coal ash than it does household waste. That provision has been in place since before DENR became responsible for the dam safety and waste-management oversight of coal-ash ponds in 2009, when Duke’s disposal permit was last renewed. (DENR has regulated the industry through water discharge permits for much longer than that.)

“Where was the outrage in 2009 when the state of North Carolina still allowed the creation of a landfill for coal ash to be easier than a landfill for banana peels?” he said.

Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Quality, said: “A problem that’s been 70 to 80 years in the making in just a little bit over a year will be addressed.”

Reeder and Skvarla’s assurances were met with polite reaction from members of the Senate agriculture committee and environmentalists who spoke at the meeting. But lawmakers made it clear they intend to write their own plan. They have said they will use McCrory’s Senate Bill 729 as a starting point.

Several House members who are working with the Senate on a legislative version attended Thursday’s meeting to get a sense of the direction of the discussion.

“There really is an intent with the House and Senate and governor to find something we can all agree on that actually helps to clean up the problem, and does it in a responsible way with a responsible time line,” Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from Charlotte, said afterward.

Environmentalists want a bill that goes beyond McCrory’s proposal by setting firm dates for removing the 106 million tons of coal ash from 33 ponds and closing the 14 sites in the state. They oppose leaving coal ash in capped basins, which could be allowed under the bill. And they want to see standards imposed for the use of coal ash in structures like roads and buildings, rather than just a moratorium.

“We’re counting on you to prevent the problem from getting worse,” said Cassie Gavin, government relations director at the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists also don’t like the governor’s plan because it doesn’t impose a blanket order to close all the plants and move the material to secure locations away from rivers. But Skvarla said each site had to be dealt with individually, and he noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed with that approach.

After the meeting, Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said the utility would continue to follow the discussion as a bill takes shape in the General Assembly.

“We’re continuing to focus on a scientifically based plan that will provide effective solutions in a reasonable time frame,” he said. “We just want to ensure that we can prioritize the plans that need to be addressed first, but also realistic time lines where than can be addressed in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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