Raleigh, N.C. — A Senate proposal to force Duke Energy to close its coal ash ponds in North Carolina passed its first hurdle Tuesday with a unanimous vote in the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee.
The latest version of Senate Bill 729 remains essentially as it was unveiled Monday, with only a pair of minor amendments. One specifies that the legislation applies only to public utilities generating coal ash, or "coal combustion residuals." The other clarifies that Duke must not only request proposals for "beneficial" uses for coal ash, but must act on them.
After not speaking at Monday's meeting, Duke took the opportunity Tuesday to express concern about the "very aggressive" timetable laid out in the proposal.
The bill would require Duke to close four "high-risk" coal ash sites by Aug. 1, 2019. Meanwhile, the state would work to prioritize the other 10 sites. Any rated as intermediate risks would have to be excavated and closed by 2024. Those rated low-risk could be capped and left in place but would have to be closed by 2029.
George Everett, Duke's director of environmental and legislative affairs, warned the Senate panel that the five-year timeline might not be feasible, given the time needed to get a closure plan approved, receive public comment on prioritizing sites and locate, permit, and build landfills for the ash the company is required to remove.
"Until we know the rankings of the sites and the closure plan at those sites, it's very hard for us to assess our ability to meet the schedule," Everett said. "We respectfully ask that the timelines in the bill be revisited – just look at them – at the time the prioritization list and closure plan have been approved. We just need to make sure those plans are achievable once those steps are taken.
"It's taken us 80 years to generate this amount of coal ash," he said.
"I've found in my life that I get more things when I have a tight guideline," responded bill sponsor Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "We'll be here every year, but I think there are four facilities now you could probably start clearing out today."
Everett said Duke has closed down seven of the state's 14 coal-fired plants since its merger with Progress Energy. Of the seven still operating and generating ash, he said, only three units still generate wet fly ash.
"We've converted all the rest to dry ash handling. We have committed to close the handling of ash at those [last three] facilities," he said.
Everett also told the panel that Duke is exploring the possibility of building an ash processing facility near the Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County to refine and sell more ash to the concrete industry.
He explained that the utility currently resells about 70 percent of its modern ash, but most of the older coal ash in the lagoons is lower quality and contains too much unburned carbon to be desirable to concrete producers.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, asked what it would take to refine the old ash for industrial use.
"You have to reduce carbon content," Everett replied. "You burn it again."
Reburning, Everett explained, is expensive but is technologically feasible and is being done in some places. He said Duke also has a team of people looking for other ways to modify the ash and market it for broader uses than concrete and road-building.
"We understand why we're in the bulls-eye right now," he said.
The bill will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday and then in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Apodaca said he expects it will reach the Senate floor Monday night.