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Lawmakers Compromise With McCrory On Coal Ash Cleanups

Coal ash ponds at Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly.
David Boraks
Coal ash ponds at Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly.

Updated 9:11 p.m.

Lawmakers have reached a compromise with Gov. Pat McCrory on how to revise state law requiring cleanups at Duke Energy's North Carolina coal ash sites.  The new bill could let Duke leave ash where it is at some plants, instead of removing it.

Three weeks ago, McCrory vetoed the Legislature's previous attempt to update the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. He opposed plans to revive an independent commission to oversee coal ash cleanups. 

So lawmakers deleted that from this latest bill, which is making its way through the Legislature this week.

The bill passed the Senate Rules Committee and the full Senate Tuesday. It now goes to the House.  

Like the bill McCrory vetoed, this one guarantees new permanent water supplies to households near Duke Energy's coal ash basins - something plant neighbors like.

The bill also sets a deadline - Oct. 15, 2018 - for Duke to set up the new water supplies. That's another element the governor criticized in his veto message.

But it also could undo an order by state regulators in May that Duke must remove ash at many of its plants.

Under the new bill, once new water supplies are in place, and once Duke shows it has repaired leaking coal ash basins, the state would lower ratings for basins to "low risk." That would let the utility leave coal ash where it is - something it's been seeking this legislative session.

Duke wants to drain coal ash ponds and install permanent, waterproof covers - called "cap in place."

Coal ash is what's left after burning coal. Duke stores it in ponds and landfills at its plants, where it can leach toxic heavy metals into groundwater.

Duke supports the bill. The utility says it can't meet deadlines in the 2014 law and argues that removing coal ash would be too expensive."We support this bill and appreciate that the legislature and administration continue to seek solutions to protect the environment and local communities, while preserving the full range of options to safely close ash basins in ways that also protect customers’ pocketbooks," spokesman Jeff Brooks said.

He said there's no evidence plant neighbors' wells have been affected by coal ash: "While science and engineering continue to demonstrate that we have not influenced plant neighbors’ wells, we understand the importance of providing plant neighbors with peace of mind as part of this process. We will review these provisions and monitor the bill’s progress as it moves forward." 

Environmental groups are criticizing the new bill.

“The North Carolina Senate has once again failed to protect the people they claim to represent. Instead, the anti-clean water N.C. Senate has brokered yet another sweetheart deal for Duke Energy," said Dan Crawford, of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.

Frank Holleman is a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents citizens and environmental groups. He called the bill a betrayal of the thousands who offered comments and spoke out at public hearings in favor of removing coal ash.

"Under that process, after public hearings across the state, after thousands of public comments, the state agency was forced to conclude that under science, the facts and the existing law, Duke Energy had to remove its coal ash from leaking unlined pits across the state. This bill simply bails Duke out of that obligation," Holleman said Tuesday.

Added Molly Diggins, state director of the NC Sierra Club: "This bill abandons the idea that risk to groundwater and surface water should determine closure methods and timelines at half of the coal ash sites in the state."

Copyright 2016 WFAE

David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.
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