The N.C. House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that may let Duke Energy extend a 15-year timetable to close its North Carolina coal-ash ponds.
The 85-27 vote followed heated debate – and an unusual parliamentary move – over adding Duke’s Cape Fear power plant, in Chatham County, to a list of four plants in which ash would have to be removed by 2019.
The House measure will need a third vote Thursday before members begin resolving differences with the Senate, which passed its ash bill June 25.
Both set deadlines between 2019 and 2029 for Duke to drain its 33 ash ponds, depending on the risks that a new commission decides they pose.
But the House version allows the state environment secretary to grant Duke extensions to those deadlines by undetermined periods. Duke had complained that the timeline was too short to guarantee that work could be completed.
Duke could be given more time if it shows that it could not meet a deadline using “economically reasonable” technologies and that meeting it would “produce serious hardship without equal or greater benefits to the public.”
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, the Charlotte Republican who is one of the bill’s sponsors, said the extensions acknowledge the uncertainties involved in cleaning up 102 million tons of ash.
“It’s simply there to help capture the best options as they become available to us,” she told the House.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources would hold public hearings on variances it proposes.
An amendment to delete the extensions was tabled on the House floor.
The House made several other changes to the Senate bill, including allowing the governor to name the chairman of the new nine-member ash commission after Gov. Pat McCrory complained about the legislature’s authority to create it.
Senate rules Chairman Tom Apodaca predicted Wednesday that the Senate would not agree to the change.
“What worries me is it looks like they’re caving to the governor,” Apodaca said. “This (commission) needs to be independent, as nonpolitical as possible, to make a decision.”
Priority list debated
But much of the floor debate Wednesday focused on which power plants would have to close their ash ponds first.
By a one-vote margin, House members initially agreed to add Duke’s Cape Fear power plant to a list of four high-priority sites. They tabled votes on attempts to add five other power plants to the list.
The Environmental Protection Agency rated Cape Fear’s ash ponds as “poor” last year. The state said in March that Duke pumped 61 millions of gallons of wastewater into a river tributary without approval. Environmentalists said Tuesday that they plan to sue Duke over problems at Cape Fear and two other plants.
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, was allowed to change his “no” vote to “yes” on adding Cape Fear to the quick-action list. Then Jeter asked that the House vote again on the plant.
Democrat Rick Glazier sputtered, calling the move “nothing but a fraud on this House (that) absolutely impugns the integrity of it.”
“I am not a lawyer,” Jeter responded. “I do however have the rule book in front of me (and) this is perfectly legal.”
A lengthy debate ensued on the merits of House members deciding which plants should get quickest cleanups.
“I mean no disrespect, but this (Cape Fear plant) is in my district, and it’s important to me,” said Rep. Mike Stone, a Lee County Republican who wanted the plant on the quick-action list.
In tinkering with the list, said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, another bill sponsor, “We’re making political decisions that we have said ought to be scientific.”
With a second, 54-58 vote, the Cape Fear plant was deleted from the priority list.
The House, like the Senate, left silent whether Duke’s customers will have to pay for cleanup costs that Duke has estimated at up to $10 billion.
“Growing up, I was always taught that if you break it, you buy it,” said Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance. “And in this circumstance there’s no doubt that Duke has broken it and now they have to pay.”
Baskerville’s amendment, leaving cleanup costs to Duke, was tabled. Bill sponsors argue that the financial complications of Duke’s costs should be left to the state Utilities Commission. The measure extends a moratorium on Duke asking for a rate hike to pay for the work from 2015 to 2017.
The House bill also changed cleanup requirements for groundwater contamination inside a so-called compliance boundary, which marks where violations occur.
Samuelson said the change was needed because the previous version inadvertently would apply to local governments.
“I don’t know how many of us want our local governments because of a compliance boundary issue to shut down their waste treatment system,” she said.
Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.