Coal ash cleanup was the subject of the first bill introduced during the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2014 short session, yet legislative action on the ponds at 14 Duke Energy sites across the state is slow and sustained.
Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, said state lawmakers are taking a careful, thorough approach when considering solutions to the complex issue.
“It’s a lot to deal with statewide and sometimes if you rush legislation, you have unintended consequences. We’ve been working really hard to make sure we’re looking at all the facts and all the ideas,” Catlin said during a June 9 phone interview.
Disposal of coal ash wastewater in more than 30 unlined ponds became an urgent concern after 39,000 tons of ash spilled into the Dan River in February.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s coal ash legislation was introduced in the state Senate on May 14. Under the governor’s measure, Duke would be required to submit a plan within 90 days to remove coal ash from top-priority sites in Asheville, Charlotte, Eden and Wilmington. A deadline for cleanup would be determined in Duke’s plan.
John Skvarla, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary, presented the bill to the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee on June 5. Although the hearing prompted discussion, no action was taken.
Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said a plan calling for closure of only some coal ash ponds is too weak.
“[The bill is] basically saying four of these communities deserve to have clean water but the other 10 don’t. The problems at each of the facilities are basically the same. … Every one of those ponds has the potential to do exactly what the Dan River pond did, which is fail,” Burdette said during a June 10 phone interview.
Because ash wastewater, laced with heavy toxins like arsenic, leaks and seeps from the unlined pits in which it is stored, Burdette and other environmental advocates insist on a coal ash bill that requires Duke to move all ash to lined, capped landfills.
A House bill sponsored by Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, delivers a tougher approach, ordering Duke to move ash from all ponds in the state to landfills without passing the cost to ratepayers.
Duke pledged to pay for cleanup of the Dan River spill but said it will try to defer the cost to close its other coal ash ponds onto consumers. The project is estimated to cost $10 billion.
Harrison’s bill is awaiting its first reading by the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy.
Two additional bills from the House and Senate are expected to emerge soon. Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville announced his intent to sponsor a bill in April but has not yet filed it. Rep. Chuck McGrady, also of Hendersonville, is working on a second House bill.
Catlin has been involved in the development of McGrady’s bill, which he said used the governor’s plan as a starting point. He continued to say the House bill addresses its weaknesses by demanding a site-by-site analysis to determine pond closures and outlining interim measures.
“[Coal ash ponds] all have different spill potential, different risks, different groundwater issues. A thoughtful site-by-site approach is the answer that I think would be best,” Catlin said.
Catlin agreed that all coal ash ponds need to be lined but hopes some ponds could be properly closed on-site without affecting nearby surface water or groundwater. He said there is not enough landfill space to hold all the state’s ash, adding that it would take years to secure a permit for each new landfill.
Burdette recognized change will take time but said the sooner a plan is approved, the better.
“It’s not going to happen overnight … but we can start immediately and put a pretty aggressive plan in place that gets them cleaned up as soon as possible,” Burdette said.