Ash basins at half the 14 coal-fired power plants in the state could be covered and left where they are rather than excavated and moved into lined storage, as is required of the other seven, under a Senate bill the House approved Thursday night and sent to the governor.
Hundreds of neighbors of power plants who are concerned their drinking water wells could be contaminated by coal ash would be connected to municipal supplies by the fall of 2018, under the bill.
The legislation requires Duke Energy to pay for the water hookups and make whatever dam repairs are needed at the basins. The utility would also be required to establish three centers in the state to process coal ash into structural concrete and other uses.
And it would take away an independent oversight commission that lawmakers had previously created and place that authority within Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.
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The bill is meant to accelerate the delivery of water to neighbors, who have been living on bottled water supplied by Duke Energy for more than a year. A coal ash regulatory bill the governor vetoed earlier this year — over his insistence that he control oversight of the cleanup — would have required the utility to strike binding agreements for water hookups a year earlier.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, said the bill put public health and the environment at risk. She said independent oversight was needed, and said the remaining seven basins will be treated too leniently.
"This is a compromise developed between Duke, the governor, DEQ (the Department of Environmental Quality) and the Senate, with no environmental advocates and, as far as I know, no one from the House."
Duke Energy supported the bill.
"The flexibility that this law provides will help ensure that science, not special interests, can provide the right closure solution for each of our sites," the company statement said. "We are committed to meeting the requirements of the law and to being a leader in the safe closure of ash basins across the state."
The House approved the bill 82-32, with support from Democrats who voted with the Republican majority.