State lawmakers have been unable to bridge disagreements on how to force Duke Energy to clean up its 33 coal ash sites in the final days of the legislative session.
The stalemate leaves open the possibility that one of the top policy priorities for the legislature and for Gov. Pat McCrory – as well as for people living in areas where the coal ash is store-housed – may be delayed.
Late Thursday, negotiators from the House and Senate were still trying to work out a bill that both chambers could agree to and vote on before the Senate packed up and went home for two weeks.
After a six-month lead-up, and with a legislative climax slipping away, the two chambers were left blaming each other for the standoff.
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“It’s a serious impasse,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson Republican, said after the House adjourned Thursday. McGrady, the lead House negotiator.
“We are at loggerheads and we can’t seem to find a middle way between us,” he said. “It may mean this needs to be taken up later in the year.”
Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Sen. Phil Berger, said Senate negotiators have committed to an agreement and are waiting for their House counterparts. “Senate conferees have signed the Coal Ash conference report and are waiting for the House conferees to sign it,” she said.
But Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and House negotiator, blamed the Senate for the impasse and said House negotiators have not seen a final version of the compromise bill from the Senate.
The sticking point dividing House and Senate negotiators is a provision that prioritizes which coal ash ponds are deemed low-risk and subject to less stringent regulation, Samuelson said.
Samuelson said House members are eager for a resolution and open to considering the Senate’s original coal ash legislation, even without the House changes, just to make sure a bill gets to the governor before lawmakers leave town. The Senate plans to adjourn in the early morning hours Friday, complicating the process, Samuelson said.
“The original version is better than no version at all,” she said.
House and Senate negotiators can continue their discussions after the legislature leaves Raleigh at the end of the week. But neither chamber would be able to vote on a compromise until the legislature returns on Aug. 14 to deal with unfinished business.
Among the differences between the House and Senate bills are how many members the Governor and the legislature would appoint to a newly created Coal Ash Management Commission.
McGrady wouldn’t elaborate on the specifics of the impasse.
“I’m disappointed but we are where we are,” he said. “I was very hopeful that we were going to have an agreement some time ago.”
Coal ash from power plants contains heavy metals, such a selenium and arsenic, that are unsafe in drinking water above certain concentrations. Duke Energy is storing about 106 million tons of the incinerated waste in open-air pits at 14 sites in North Carolina.
North Carolina is the first state in the nation to attempt to create a comprehensive coal ash cleanup program as other states await an ash-management proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due later this year.
The Charlotte power company has said it could cost $10 billion to remove the material to safer facilities that are designed not to contaminate underground water sources. Duke officials have warned that cleanup proposals from the Republican-controlled legislature are too aggressive, but environmental activists say the legislative proposals leave open the possibility of leaving the ash at current locations indefinitely.
Environmental organizations have lobbied for a cleanup solution and have filed legal actions to shut down the ash pits operated by Duke’s two subsidiaries, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources took over the lead lawsuit after a February accident spewed 39,000 tons of slurry and sludge into the Dan River, underscoring the risks inherent in storing coal as in giant outdoor lagoons. Staff writer John Frank contributed.