A state Senate measure on coal-ash cleanup is improved

June 21, 2014 

Well, it’s progress. The state Senate has improved some proposals on regulating power plant residue. A huge spill in February dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River, and Duke Energy’s coal ash disposal has been Topic A in Raleigh since.

Gov. Pat McCrory, himself a long-time employee of Duke until his retirement, came up with a plan for regulation and cleanup that was underwhelming.

The goals of any regulatory plan are simply these: Duke has to determine and implement a better and safer disposal method. Duke must clean up what has happened without burdening ratepayers with the tab. The state must establish strict regulatory oversight of residue disposal to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Those responsible must be held to answer in a thorough investigation.

Because Republicans have done their best to do away with as many environmental regulations as possible since taking over the General Assembly, they now face a special test. They have long claimed they are pro-business, not anti-environmental regulation. But their actions have not indicated much interest in balancing the needs of business with the need to protect the state’s valuable, and finite, natural resources.

So here’s the test: The coal ash spill stirred a lot of public interest in seeing that Duke Energy take care of this problem. Fouled rivers have a way of getting people’s attention. Republicans now have a real chance to demonstrate their commitment to environmental safety.

The Senate has a coal ash bill that would demand closure of all 33 coal ash storage ponds in the state within 15 years and establish a commission to oversee those plans and look for alternatives to using coal ash in construction to help get rid of 100 million tons of the stuff.

Duke Energy wanted twice as long to close the ponds, though it recognizes that at this point it has a problem of its own making in view of most North Carolinians. Those photographs of coal ash coming up from river bottoms are not exactly easy to dismiss.

The bill was presented by Phil Berger, the Senate president pro tem who’s from Eden, close by where the spill happened, and Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, who has a coal plant in his district.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla still is defending the governor’s plan, but he surely knows that what the legislature wants, the legislature will get.

Berger said if the Senate proposal goes through, it would be the absolute toughest regulation in the country. That’s a hard sell, given GOP lawmakers’ previous actions on environmental regulation.

The News & Observer reported that one environmentalist, Lisa Evans, an attorney for California-based Earthjustice, said the proposal was inadequate.

“Even if it did (become the toughest), state regulations are so deficient it would simply be the tallest midget in the circus,” Evans said. “The presence of numerous loopholes would take away even that title.”

One loophole, for example, would allow a new Coal Ash Management Commission to override any ruling by DENR if a ruling might in the commission’s judgment raise electricity costs. And though Duke would be required to clean up spills, the company still wants customers to cover the costs of closing ponds.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2016, also has put Republicans on the spot by saying what many residents are thinking: Duke and its shareholders should pay the costs of coal ash cleanup and not put it on consumers. Cooper acknowledges that utilities have a right to recoup some kinds of costs from customers, but he believes this is an exceptional case.

The coal ash crisis was long in coming, an environmental hazard waiting to happen. The state must not go easily or too patiently into the world of regulating something that clearly hasn’t been regulated enough, if at all.

This was not the GOP’s mess. But it is the GOP’s test.

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