Raleigh, N.C. — The House voted 85-27 Wednesday to give tentative approval to a plan for closing and cleaning up dozens of coal ash ponds across North Carolina.
A final vote is expected Thursday morning before the bill is sent back to the Senate to see if senators concur with the House's changes.
Under the proposal, four "high-risk" coal ash sites would have to be closed by Aug. 1, 2019, and the state would prioritize the other 10 North Carolina sites where ash is stored in giant lagoons. Any others rated as high risks would have a Dec. 31, 2019, deadline assigned for cleanup, while those rated as intermediate risks would have to be excavated and closed by the end of 2024. Sites deemed low risk could be covered and left in place but would have to be closed by the end of 2029.
The House included a provision that would give the Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary the power to grant a variance to any deadline if Duke Energy shows "compliance with the deadline cannot be achieved by application of best available technology found to be economically reasonable at the time and would produce serious hardship without equal or greater benefits to the public."
Democrats tried to remove the provision from the bill, but the motion was tabled.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, said the leeway is needed to accommodate changing situations and technology. She noted that any variance would first have to go through a public hearing and be documented.
"There is no documented experience to show exactly what is the right way," Samuelson said. "You have to allow for things to go not the way you want them to go."
Duke officials have called the hard deadlines in the Senate bill an "aggressive" timeline and said they company might not be able to meet them.
Another six of the 23 amendments the House considered also were tabled, including one that would have prevented Duke from passing on the cost of the cleanup to electric customers and several that would have added sites to the high-priority list.
"When I was growing up, I was taught, 'You break it, you buy it,'" said Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance. "Duke has broke it and now has to pay – period."
Baskerville noted that Duke had a $2.7 billion profit last year and could easily afford to pay for the cleanup, which utility officials said could range from $2 billion to $10 billion.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and others said the cost issue could be addressed later and shouldn't be mixed up with the aspects of trying to get the cleanup started.
The House did add a provision to the bill that would prevent Duke from asking the state Utilities Commission for any rate increase to cover the cleanup costs until January 2017. The previous moratorium extended only until Jan. 15, 2015.
Lawmakers voted 56-55 to approve adding coal ash ponds at a retired Duke plant in Moncure to the priority cleanup list after both Republicans and Democrats from Lee and Cumberland counties backed it.
McGrady said the four priority sites – near Eden, Wilmington and Asheville and in Gaston County – are all small and would serve as proving grounds for the best ways to handle the larger ash ponds elsewhere. He and others urged lawmakers to "let the process work" and not try to shuffle the order in which sites are addressed.
"Some of the others will end up high priority," McGrady said.
"If we start down this track (of adding sites to the priority list), we might as well just throw out the bill and tell Duke, 'Somehow or other, you have to figure out how to get them cleaned up next year,'" Samuelson said.
After lawmakers tabled moving several sites to the priority list, Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, used a parliamentary procedure to bring the Moncure plant back up for consideration and a new vote.
"This is nothing but a fraud on this House and absolutely impugns the integrity of this chamber," said an incensed Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.
"Anything I've done," Jeter responded, "is perfectly in the rulebook adopted by this chamber."
A motion to table the amendment adding the Moncure site failed, and a lengthy, often rancorous, debate ensued before the House voted 54-58 against the proposal.
The House version of the bill has been sharply criticized by environmentalists, who said the House weakened the plan adopted by the Senate instead of trying to strengthen it.
The new bill calls for a study that could allow Duke to leave some low-risk ash ponds in place without any remedial action. A new Coal Ash Management Commission would determine if "natural attenuation" would be the best course of action at sites shown to have no groundwater or surface water contamination.
But House members did approve amendments that would allow for the water in the ash ponds to be quickly drained, lessening the chance that the dam around the pond would break or that toxins would leak into the groundwater, and would allow other remedies aside from so-called cap-in-place for low-risk sites.
Earlier in the day, an amendment that would require Duke to provide drinking water within 24 hours to anybody whose well was found to be contaminated by a leaking ash pond was added in a House committee. Previously, the bill gave the company 30 days to provide an alternative source of water.