Lawmakers close deal on coal ash

Posted August 19, 2014

— House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise on coal ash cleanup legislation today despite publicly saying the measure was done for the year. 

"I am told that the House and the Senate may have reached consensus on the coal ash bill," House Speaker Thom Tillis told his chamber early Tuesday afternoon. He did not further elaborate, other than to warn House members they may be asked to review a bill Tuesday and vote on it Wednesday or Thursday. 

A potential deal fell apart in late July. Legislative leaders have said a final bill would have to wait until November of this year or 2015.

Early in the afternoon, neither side was ready to commit to the tentative deal.

"Nothing is signed yet," cautioned Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "We feel like we're getting very close, but we've been here before."

Meanwhile, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of the House's lead negotiators on the coal ash measure, said he is ready to sign a deal if Senators hold to a bargain struck during the past two days.

But by 7 p.m., Senate leaders were heralded the measure.

“As a resident of the community most severely impacted by the recent Dan River coal ash spill, I am personally grateful to Sen. Tom Apodaca, who has spent hundreds of hours working on this bill, along with all House and Senate conferees for persevering to get this done," Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said Tuesday evening.

Some environment advocates said on background Tuesday evening that they were encouraged by the bill's progress, which for the first time lays down standards for handling toxic coal ash at least as carefully as household garbage.

But other groups blasted the deal as a sop to Duke Energy.

"This bill asks all of us to trust DENR and a group of political appointees to make the coal ash decisions for all of North Carolina, when DENR and our politicians have repeatedly failed to clean up coal ash pollution and DENR’s coal ash activities are under investigation by a federal criminal grand jury," said Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

Coal ash became a major issue in the state after a now-closed Duke Energy coal ash plant spilled roughly 40,000 tons of toxin-laced material into the Dan River on Feb. 2. That pond was one of 33 unlined pits at 14 locations throughout North Carolina. While the company has committed to cleaning up the Feb. 2 spill, how the other ponds might be dealt with and who would bear those costs has been up in the air. 

Environmental advocates have pushed the company to dig up the ponds and move the ash, material left over after coal is burned for fuel, to lined landfills. 

Both the House and Senate have crafted bills that address the coal ash issue, although both leave open the possibility that ash would be left in its existing ponds and "capped" in place. The bills share many features in common, although the bill passed by the Senate laid down stricter timelines for dealing with the ash. However, it was a last-minute provision pushed by House negotiators that would impose a more stringent requirement that caused the latest blow up in negotiations. 

For much of the past week, House and Senate leaders have seemed ready to walk away from the bill despite declaring in March or April that cleanup legislation was a top priority. Instead, Tillis, Berger and others have said that steps on coal ash cleanup and monitoring undertaken by Gov. Pat McCrory were sufficient for the time being. However, the outcome of the deal promises to be a campaign issue this fall.

The House and Senate bills would divide the 33 coal ash ponds into low-, medium- and high-risk ponds, but neither piece of legislation defines what "low risk" means. High-risk ponds would have to be cleaned up right away, while Duke would have greater flexibility in cleaning up medium- and low-risk ponds.

House negotiators wanted to insert a provision into the final bill that said no pond could be low risk if it was close to surface waters such as streams and lakes. Senators objected to the provision, saying they didn't know what the consequence would be.

That language was the last remaining sticking point, said Apodaca and McGrady.

"We have an engineering definition of that and an legal definition of what that would mean. We're trying to reconcile those two," Apodaca said earlier Tuesday.  

McGrady, one of the House's lead negotiators on coal ash, said that while House and Senate negotiators have traded various proposals over the past two weeks, as recently as Sunday he would not have signed language offered by the Senate. A flurry of negotiations Monday and Tuesday turned things around, he said.

The bill will say that no coal ash pond in which the coal ash is sitting in ground water could be considered "low priority." This will eliminate many of the ponds from the low priority category, he said. 

"I think we're there," McGrady said, adding that he has verbally agreed to sign a conference report that would allow the House and Senate to vote on the final deal.

Both the Senate and House tentatively plan to vote on the deal Wednesday. 


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  • theysayirock Aug 19, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Duke Energy let it happen... And it doesn't matter (DEM or REP) who is in office it needs to get cleaned up. Not next year, not within 10 years, NOW!

  • The_Analyst Aug 19, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Ya think so?? Usually it's the other way around. Bush's 1.9 trillion per year deficit which Obama's crew, economic recovery, and a little austerity from both parties reduced to about 500 billion. Which is the about the amount the GOP won't let the IRS collect yearly in unpaid taxes. In other words, if the IRS was allowed to collect all the taxes the top 5% or so is not paying / cheating on, there would be NO deficit right now.

  • The_Analyst Aug 19, 2014

    I read somewhere previously that adding coal ash to cement and cinder blocks is a cost effective way to make the ash disappear while lightening the weight of these products. If this is an environmentally sound way of sequestering the ash so that it can't poison the environment somewhere else, it should be considered even though it might take a good bit longer to clean it up.

  • Spinmaster Aug 19, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Really? This is a company that did this and I would bet a large amount of the upper management team lean to the GOP... Think again trying to make this a Democrat issue.

  • jonara Aug 19, 2014

    "Lawmakers close to deal on coal ash kickback"
    Fixed it for ya.

  • jonara Aug 19, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Living in fantasy land.
    McCrory worked for Duke energy how long?!?!

  • Bill Johnson Aug 19, 2014
    user avatar

    Hey Tom T., you are the Speaker of the House, you are suppose to know what is going on. First it was, we are going to adjourn without taking action because the Governor and DENR are doing a good job handling it. Now it is, we might have a deal, but you will have to read and vote on it fast. Sounds like somebody read the latest polls and is working on damage control.

  • Rebelyell55 Aug 19, 2014

    We have an agency with the power to make Duke clean up this mess, and the Governor who can also put muscle behind the agency. We have a utiltiy com. that can make sure Duke does not pass on the cost to the customer. Yet, our GA is discussing how they're going to pass a bill to instruct them how to clean it up and who going to pay for it? Just another example of who really is in control of our state goverment. With all the heavy rain we've had in places, wonder if Duke is still pump off water off of these ponds? Wonder if anyone know how much tax dollars has been wasted so far over this?

  • KnowsItAll Aug 19, 2014

    View quoted thread

    "Think again trying to make this a Democrat issue."

    Not to mention that the governor worked for Duke Energy/Power for 29 years AND lied about his stock holdings after the catastrophe.

    If they could have attached a provision to this bill restricting the rights of gays, or expanding the rights of gun owners, the legislature would have taken quick, decisive action. But since it only involves the environment and well being of the residents of NC, there wasn't much impetus for them to do anything.

  • Todd Singleton Aug 19, 2014
    user avatar

    Somehow I do not doubt this legislation has been secured in favor of Duke. Please take care of Big Corp. Inc. Their shareholders need some welfare.