NC House approves coal-ash bill; reconciliation with NC Senate needed

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2014 Updated 15 hours ago

The coal-ash bill that sped through the N.C. House in three days now goes before legislators who will try to reconcile House-Senate versions that are broadly similar but have key differences.

The House gave final approval to the measure Thursday on a 93-16 vote. The Senate unanimously passed its bill June 25.

Both set Duke Energy on a path toward closing its 33 North Carolina ash ponds by 2029. Neither resolves whether customers will pay for it.

Among their differences is wording in the House bill that environmentalists say would gut a judge’s March ruling on groundwater contamination from ash ponds.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway, in reversing a state Environmental Management Commission decision, said the state can force Duke to take “immediate action” on cleaning up the contamination sources.

Contamination has been found at all 14 of Duke’s N.C. power plants, although the sources are in dispute.

Bill sponsors said the House change was intended to counter broad interpretations of “sources” that could be applied to public waste facilities as well as ash ponds.

The judge’s ruling “would suggest that when you have an exceedance of a (state) permit the only option is for you to remove the source of that contamination,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who worked on the bill. “That sounds a little logical, but what about municipal solid waste landfills? Is a city going to move all that trash away?”

An N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources memo said 226 sewage treatment plants are among 700 sites with water-quality permits that might be affected by the ruling. More than 2,000 petroleum spill sites regulated by waste management rules also could be affected, it said.

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents groups suing Duke, said it’s critical that contamination be stemmed at the source before ash cleanups begin.

“It is an attempt to get around the judge’s order and we’ll have to play it out in litigation,” Holleman said of the bill. “What they’re trying to do is what Duke and DENR wanted all along, and that’s to get around their obligation to eliminate the source first and do the cleanup second.”

The Senate might resist at least a couple of other House changes.

After Duke’s complaints that 15 years is too little time to close its ponds, the House allowed extensions. The state environment secretary could grant more time if Duke showed it can’t meet deadlines without “serious hardship.”

Senate bill sponsors insisted on a rigid timeline.

“I have found in my life that I get more things done when I have a tight timeline,” Sen. Tom Apodaca said during committee debate.

Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said Thursday that the “significant operational challenges that will result from the aggressive timelines in the bill continue to be our main concern.

“There is also still uncertainty about how ash basins will be prioritized, which ultimately determines closure options and the timelines we will be required to meet.”

The Senate might also chafe at changes to the newly created Coal Ash Management Commission. After Gov. Pat McCrory claimed the panel breached the legislative-executive separation of powers, the House allowed the governor to name its chairman.

Standards wanted

Environmental groups said the House changes weakened the Senate bill.

The N.C. Sierra Club said the measure still lacks clear standards to ensure that water will be protected from contamination once ponds are closed.

“The House missed the opportunity to build on the Senate’s good start and to address key shortcomings in the legislation,” the club said in a statement. “Under Speaker (Thom) Tillis’ leadership, the House failed to make the final set of changes needed to give North Carolinians the protection they deserve from Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash.”

In a final flurry of amendments Thursday, House members charged the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with making recommendations on the 15-year schedule for closing ponds.

Members said that duty might be shifted in conference with the Senate to the new ash commission.

The House voted down a motion to add to the nine-member commission a representative of neighbors who live near ash ponds. The bill instead reserves a seat only for a “resident of the state.”

Neighbors “are the experts because they’re survivors … they’ve been living near these coal ash ponds,” said Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Democrat from Charlotte. “Why can’t we give them a voice?”

The majority argued that living near the ponds don’t make residents experts in the scientific and engineering details that the commission will hash out.

Tag shareholders?

Impassioned House members argued in floor debate Thursday that Duke’s shareholders should pay ash pond costs estimated at up to $10 billion. The bill doesn’t address cleanup costs for anything other than ash spills.

“In the end we’ve got a bill that in my mind doesn’t adequately protect a family’s drinking water, in the face of known threats that it fails to counter, and makes consumers pay for a mess they didn’t create,” said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.

Bill supporters countered that cost decisions should be left to the state Utilities Commission and its consumer advocacy staff.

“That’s a far better group of people to make those decisions instead of a body that some people have already said is moving too fast,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and bill sponsor. “We have not ignored ratepayers in this bill. We have honored them in the best way possible.”

Dan dredging continues

Duke said Thursday that it has removed 258 tons of coal ash and sediment in the Dan River, about two miles downstream of the Feb. 2 ash spill in Eden.

The material was taken to a landfill in Person County.

Dredging continues in Danville, Va., where crews have removed more than 2,000 tons of ash and sediment since early May. Work is expected to end this month.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender

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