Under the Dome

Coal ash cleanup bill headed to governor

A hand is covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River in this 2014 photograph.
A hand is covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River in this 2014 photograph. AP

Both chambers of the General Assembly on Tuesday quickly passed a coal ash regulation bill that Gov. Pat McCrory threatens to veto.

While it would provide safe drinking water to neighbors of coal ash ponds, McCrory says the bill would also undermine his environmental agency.

The legislation passed with more than enough votes to override a veto: the House 84-25 and the Senate 46-1. Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, cast the no vote in the Senate. Some Democrats said the proposal could let Duke Energy avoid billions of dollars in cleanup costs and wouldn’t help well owners quickly enough.

“This legislative vote is not good for our environment or for the rule of law in North Carolina,” McCrory said in a statement.

McCrory’s legal counsel last week warned lawmakers that if his veto is overridden, the governor would sue over a provision in the bill that he contends usurps his executive authority.

Earlier this year the N.C. Supreme Court ruled the legislature in 2014 had unconstitutionally created a Coal Ash Management Commission that gave the General Assembly the majority of appointments. McCrory then disbanded it. The new legislation, Senate Bill 71, was written to satisfy the Supreme Court by giving the governor the majority of appointments and other concessions. But McCrory contends the legislature can’t create a citizen commission in the executive branch at all.

While the clash between McCrory and the legislature could kill the bill, its bipartisan momentum is due to a provision promising neighbors of Duke Energy coal ash ponds connections to municipal water supplies. Several hundred neighbors are worried about the safety of their well water in light of contradictory messages from state authorities.

The final version of the bill expands the number of people who would qualify for those water connections to include those within a half mile of a coal ash pond and those whose wells are in the path of groundwater migration, even if there are no indications that the wells have been contaminated.

Duke Energy favors the bill because it considers the review that the coal ash commission would bring to the process to be better than the current decision by the state Department of Environmental Quality to require the utility to excavate all 33 of its basins. The company doesn’t think that’s necessary.

Environmental groups welcomed the water hookups but criticized the bill’s delaying of cleanup deadlines and allowing Duke Energy to convince regulators to allow most of the basins to be capped and left in place.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO