Coal ash could become campaign hazard

Posted August 14, 2014

— North Carolina's 33 coal ash ponds could pose a political hazard this fall as the General Assembly adjourns for the time being without finishing work on legislation to address the environmental hazard posed by the unlined pits filled with toxin-laced material. 

After a Feb. 2 spill from a shuttered Duke Energy plant dumped roughly 40,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate vowed to craft legislation that would lead to the cleanup of the ponds that sit along waterways at 14 plants across the state. Progress on that legislation hit a snag earlier this month after legislative leaders couldn't resolve their differences over two different versions of the bill.

Lawmakers say they will return after the November election to take up both coal ash legislation and a Medicaid reform package. 

In the meantime, not only will state House and Senate members face voters without tackling what was supposedly a top priority for the summer session, but House Speaker Thom Tillis will campaign against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan with a significant item remaining on his chamber's to-do list.  

"It does concern us," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and one of the leaders responsible for helping his fellow Republicans get elected.

Apodaca also was one of the first Republican leaders to speak out and call for coal ash legislation.

Coal ash is the material left over after coal is burned for fuel. While most of it is inert, coal ash does contain mercury, arsenic and other toxins. Not only has the spill been an issue, but lawsuits by environmental groups have raised concerns that even intact ponds are slowly leaching toxins into groundwater supplies. As well, federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents from both state regulators and Duke as part of a criminal investigation into the spill. All of that, plus the potential for another spill at one of the aging man-made ponds, has raised the political profile of the issue this year. 

"Just letting them sit there is not the answer to the problem," Apodaca said in February.

Other leaders soon signed on, and lawmakers held special meetings this spring designed to help quickly draft a bill. 

But as the summer wore on, the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate ran into a number of differences over key legislation, including education spending in the budget, Medicaid and coal ash. While the budget battle eventually ended, the scrap over coal ash became publicly toxic two weeks ago, with members of both chambers accusing each other of being disingenuous. 

"We just can't reach agreement," Apodaca said. 

Questions about consequences

For Republicans, who won control of the legislature in 2010 from Democrats and expanded their majorities in 2012 based on promises to more efficiently and effectively run government, the failure to address such a high-profile problem could rebound at the polls. 

"My sense would be, in certain districts, it will be very salient," said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist for Govs. Bev Perdue and Mike Easley who now teaches at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

Lawmakers who have large coal ash ponds in or near their districts, such as Apodaca and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, may face stiffer questions that those who do not.

"I understand the gravity of the problem and fixing it to be a top priority," Berger said on the Senate floor Thursday night. But he said coal ash "is a highly complex issue," and it was appropriate for the state to take more time.  

Traditionally, environmental issues have less pull in statewide elections, and it's unlikely that coal ash by itself will drive voters one way or the other. But, McCorkle said, the failure to pass a bill could contribute to a narrative that Republicans are not up to the job of governing. 

"It does seem they ought to be able to get something done, even if it's not terribly punitive against Duke, declare victory and go home," said North Carolina State University political science professor Andrew Taylor.

While some individual state lawmakers may face questions about coal ash, Taylor said Tillis may be more troubled by the issue if Democrats use it to question why the legislature couldn't get a bill passed.

"That's a competency and leadership argument rather than a question of whether they're good or bad on the environment," Taylor said.

Tillis said Thursday he's comfortable with leaving the bill until November.

"There's work that's being done now that follows the spirit of the underlying legislation," Tillis said Thursday night, referring to an executive order issued by Gov. Pat McCrory.  He downplayed any potential electoral consequences. 

"I believe North Carolina is moving more quickly than any other state," he said. Rather than "taking a pass," Tillis said lawmakers are just taking time to get complex bill right. 

Both Tillis and McCrory have been named in commercials by environmental groups complaining about their approach to the coal ash issue. While environmental issues have not yet taken center stage, McCrory has been criticized as a former Duke Energy employee who still held stock in the company. His administration's handling of various lawsuits surrounding the coal ash ponds has also been criticized as too lenient by environmental advocates. 

"It may well be that this a bigger issue for McCrory to resolve with 2016 in mind than for Tillis with 2014 in mind," Taylor said. 

As for General Assembly races, lawmakers are split over the potential impact of leaving town without a bill.  

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, said that voters should appreciate the need for lawmakers to go slow.

"This is the first legislation of its type in the country," Avila said, and lawmakers need to get it right.

Asked whether the delay wasn't more over differences between the House and the Senate than the need to study the measure, Avila said the disagreement is over the best approach to determining what kind of cleanup procedure is needed for each pond. 

"The disagreements have to do with the particulars of how you approach a solution," she said. 

Both Avila and Apodaca said that an executive order by McCrory and subsequent action by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will continue cleanup efforts. McCrory's executive order has been criticized by environmental groups as doing little more that putting monitoring in place and taking other steps that should have been done immediately after the spill.

"I think it's a big liability to leave it until after the election," Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said of the coal ash bill.

Harrison has filed coal ash cleanup measures since 2009, and she said Democrats could end up capitalizing on the GOP leadership's failure to act.

In particular, she said that constituents she has talked to don't want to see the cleanup costs affect their power bills. While Duke has said it will bear the cost of clearing up the Dan River spill, company officials have indicated they could ask for power rate increases to help with the costs of other ponds.

No version of the coal ash legislation says exactly how or if Duke would be able to recoup its cleanup costs from consumers, although several versions call for delays in levying any new fees for the cleanup.  

"That may be the stick of dynamite in this whole thing," long-time Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said of the cleanup cost issue.

While it's unlikely Duke can bear the whole cost of cleanup, Wrenn said that the very profitable company can't plausibly say it should pay nothing.

In addition, he said, the spill has changed the political calculus that has traditionally relegated coal ash to second-tier status among campaign issues. Widespread news coverage of the spill, subsequent investigations and pledges to act have made the environment generally, and the spill particularly, a top-of-mind issue. 

"It's a problem as long as voters think there's a problem with coal ash ponds," Wrenn said.


This blog post is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • miseem Aug 15, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Sure. Let's just let Duke Power take those clean up charges to our electric bills. Maybe they would like to add some more for bonuses for their execs, maybe a little more for their PAC, kick in a little more to ALEC. We would not want to stand in the way of Duke Power stock increasing in value. And guaranteeing Duke does not suffer due to unsafe disposal of coal ash is a good first step. After all, even if they did know it was toxic, no one in government MADE them do anything about it. Although they can claim the benefits of being the same as people, they are not in business to spend money to clean up their messes unless forced to. Altruism is not a corporate plus. And after all, rising stock prices are way more beneficial than reasonable electric power rates.

  • Maurice Pentico Jr. Aug 15, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Face the fact EVERY person in NC has enjoyed the cheap electricity Duke power has been generating for DECADES. And in that time, the Democrat controlled DENR looked the other way, while Duke stored the by-products of its electricity production in an economically efficient manner. Now its time to clean it up.... and pay the piper for all those years of cheap electricity. Duke energy stocks likely reside in MANY peoples 401K as part of a mutual fund... so go ahead and bash your own retirement returns if you must.

  • Forthe Newssite Aug 15, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    they could not care less about the citizens .....

    Duke Energy IS WHO CAUSED THIS NOT THE DEMS and now mccrock is protecting DE because of his long relationship w/ them AND the amount of shares someone in his family still owns. I'd bet dollars to donuts he didn't 'sell' those shares but put them in someone elses name...

  • Rjoe Gleen Aug 15, 2014
    user avatar

    It's only a complex issue when it comes to figuring out how to do the least financial damage to the Duke Energy elite and its share holders. Tillis, Berger, McCrory, Pope, Dollar and Apodaca could care less about the environmental damage concerns.

  • teleman60 Aug 15, 2014

    View quoted thread

    You don't seem to get it. The problem is DUKE PROGRESS Corp malfeasance - NOT STATE GOVT! The disaster happened and McCrory and the gop GA NEEDED TO REACT for the state health.
    If Duke had taken care OF THEIR OWN PROBLEMS like we are assured daily that corps SHOULD/CAN DO WITHOUT REGULATION - we wouldn't be talking about anything right now.

  • teleman60 Aug 15, 2014

    Coal Ash is the LEAST of their problems!!! Cutting taxes before realizing YOU GOT TO GET MONEY FROM SOMEWHERE that left a $580 million dollar short fall at least, abortion motorcycle bills, hunting with silencers, guns in bars and playgrounds, election and voter ID WHERE NO EVIDENCE exists,

    Corporations are CUTTING JOBS almost as fast as the GA is chasing thousands of jobs to SC and Georgia! Women's clinics closing over TRAP LAWS found UNCONSTITUTIONAL in other states along with the NC Amendment 1 also UNCONSTITUTIONAL, the Justice Dept investigating voter suppression issues - and on and on and on...

    Why would ANYBODY vote for the people who DID ALL THIS????

    That's a really good question NC voters need to answer.

    Kansas voters have experienced the GOP CONSERVATIVE DREAM - nearly bankrupt, credit downgraded 4X in the last 2 months, US District Courts invalidating GOP driven bills, republicans endorsing THE DEMOCRAT against their own governor to save their own state.

    Look it up!

  • heelhawk Aug 15, 2014

    View quoted thread

    So, in an article about the GOP controlled State Legislature/General Assembly's inability to do their jobs and their blatant disregard to the heath of citizens and the environment you decide to deflect the topic (with no facts mind you) onto a federal senate race. Man, you really have the GOP playbook down pat don't you?

  • Darwin Rhoads Aug 15, 2014
    user avatar

    Seems to me the Dems aren't worried about the coal ash either, they were in control the last 100 yrs. that was certainly plenty of time to address the problem.

  • tomfoolery Aug 15, 2014

    View quoted thread

    I'll second that.

  • baldchip Aug 15, 2014

    kay Hagan and the liberal left will say anything possible to get her re-elected. They are scared to death that the GOP will get a majority in the Senate.

    Kay Hagan's record in the Senate is straight Obama. She does an add right now on TV calling herself a moderate-"just like NC"!! well guess what-her voting record shows otherwise!!

    My comment-ABK-anybody but Kay!!!