NC Coal ash bill offers a weak remedy

The Coal Ash Management Act that won final approval by the Republican-led General Assembly Wednesday is better than the Republicans’ previous approach to leaking coal ash pits. Namely, “Let’s adjourn and do nothing.”

But this something is not much better than nothing. Essentially, Senate Bill 729 proposes to solve the coal ash problem by declaring it not a problem. Or, at least not an urgent problem. Only four of Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash sites are designated for cleanup by 2019. What to do with the rest would depend on risk assessments by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and approval by a commission whose members would be appointed by the legislature and the governor.

Addressing the problem with a commission delays action. It also assures that the “solution” will be the product of lobbying and the legislature’s prevailing desire to side with business interests over the interests, and in this case the health, of state residents. We need look no further than the state’s Mining and Safety Commission’s pro-fracking approach to safety issues to know how this even more politicized coal ash commission would work.

The bill makes it obvious just how broken, to borrow the governor’s term, environmental regulation is in North Carolina. It requires that the Department of Environment and Natural resources to have its coal ash decisions approved by a commission. The House’s lead negotiator on the measure, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the state’s environmental regulators can’t regulate coal ash directly because, “There’s ongoing criminal investigations right now.” A federal grand jury is investigating DENR’s actions related to coal ash.

Tellingly, this weak bill fails to address the issue at the heart of the coal ash mess: Who will pay for the cleanup?

McGrady said this dodge was necessary. “If we had put the cost issue in this bill, we wouldn’t be cleaning these up, because we’d still be debating the cost issue,” he said.

There’s no cost issue with most North Carolinians. A June poll of 500 voters by TelOpinion Research, found that 77 percent of the respondents said Duke Energy shareholders should pay, 10 percent said the state should pay and 6 percent said customers should pay.

Duke Energy saved money for decades by taking the cheap and reckless route of dumping some 100 million tons coal ash into 33 unlined pits at 14 power plants. Environmental groups long warned that the approach was letting polluted water leak from the pits into groundwater. Those warnings got state and national attention on Feb. 2 when a pipe beneath a pit broke and 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River.

Now the urgency of the moment has passed, and Republican lawmakers are moving toward measures so modest that most of the pits will continue to leak for years. Indeed, at least one Republican leader wondered aloud Wednesday whether coal ash – a byproduct of coal-burning power plants that is tainted with lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins – is worth the worry.

Rep. Edgar Starnes of Caldwell, the Republican majority leader, noted during a committee meeting that coal ash is not classified as a hazardous waste. He said, “So, if I went to a coal ash pond and picked it up and rubbed it on my hands, that is not, in and of itself, hazardous?”

Coal ash’s chemicals can be neutralized when coal is recycled to make building material, but no one, including the representative from Caldwell, would want it in their drinking water. That hazard makes the coal ash pits an immediate threat. North Carolina should be taking immediate action. The coal ash pits should be closed and their contents removed, and the coal ash either recycled or stored in dry, sealed landfills.

That’s the way it should have been all along. That it wasn’t is Duke Energy’s fault, and now a total cleanup must be made the utility’s obligation and its expense.