Raleigh, N.C. — A legislative panel that likely will draft proposals for the General Assembly to consider in the coming months on how coal ash is handled and disposed of in North Carolina gathered information Tuesday from state regulators, environmentalists and a Duke Energy executive.
The state Environmental Review Commission didn't address any legislation during the three-hour hearing on Earth Day, including a raft of proposals Gov. Pat McCrory unveiled last week. Instead, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, one of the panel's co-chairmen, said members wanted a big-picture look at the context of the coal ash issue, which has been a focus of state and national media since a Feb. 2 ash spill at a retired Duke power plant near Eden fouled 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge.
"We don't want to miss an important part of the issue" while crafting legislation, Samuelson said.
Paul Newton, the president of Duke's North Carolina operations, apologized for the ash spill and vowed that the utility "will continue to do what it takes to make this right." The company has already spent $15 million cleaning up the Dan River, he said, adding that he had no idea what the final price tag would be.
Duke Chief Executive Officer Lynn Good last month outlined the company's plans to move the coal ash from the Eden site and from ponds in Asheville and Gaston County into lined pits and to dry out the ash in dozens of other ponds across North Carolina to limit the potential for groundwater contamination.
Newton said those plans, along with capping the ash ponds once they are dried out, would cost $2 billion to $2.5 billion. If Duke were to dig up all of the ash from the 33 North Carolina ponds and truck it all to lined landfills, it would take years to complete and add $4 billion to $5.5 billion to the overall cost.
North Carolina doesn't even have enough landfill space to take all of the coal ash Duke produces, according to Dexter Matthews, director of the state Division of Solid Waste Management.
The company has six landfills already in operation that take in only coal ash, Matthews said, but the 6,000 tons of ash Duke's power plants produce daily "totally dwarfs" the capacity of those landfills. To put it in perspective, he said, large municipal landfills take in about 3,000 tons of trash on an average day.
Dumping the ash in municipal landfills across the state would cut their overall capacity by 15 percent, he said, adding that he doesn't view disposing of the ash that way as a viable option.
"There are not too many communities in the state that, I think, are going to be lining up to receive the (coal ash) waste," Matthews said.
Newton urged lawmakers to work with Duke to come up with "a prudent, environmentally sound and cost-effective solution" for each site and not mandate a single plan for the ash disposal.
Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said lawmakers need to make Duke accountable for the coal ash that it's produced for decades and give the company specific deadlines for disposing the toxic material, which regulators publicly acknowledge has been leaking into the groundwater near all 14 sites.
"It is very important that the phrase 'one size does not fit all' does not become an excuse for not providing the same level of protection to some communities," Diggins told lawmakers. "Coal ash is a can that has been kicked down the road for far too long."
Other environmentalists scoffed at Newton's contention that coal ash isn't a hazardous material and said Duke's so-called cap-in-place plan for handling most of its ash ponds would continue to put North Carolina's waterways and groundwater at risk of contamination.
Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, also questioned Newton about Duke's projected time-line for dealing with the coal ash. Disposing of the ash in Eden could take two years, Newton said, adding that no plans would be drafted for most sites until the end of this year.
"I think the timetables that you've laid out are, frankly, a little too lengthy," McLaurin said. "The public is expecting to see a quicker resolution, a quicker closure strategy."
Good and other Duke executives have said that they plan to pass as much of the coal ash disposal cost as possible through to customers in the form of higher electric rates.
The state Utilities Commission must approve any rate increase, and Chairman Ed Finley said the commission tries not to review issues like coal ash in isolation from a utility's overall operation in setting rates. Chris Ayers, executive director of the Public Staff, the state agency that represents consumers in utility rate cases, told lawmakers that he tries to negotiate for the best deal possible based on what utility officials knew or should have known at the time they made specific moves, such as Duke's decision to dump its coal ash in watery ponds.
Samuelson asked Finley whether the Utilities Commission needed any specific legislation before any coal ash-related rate cases came up, and he said he would gladly cede the question of rates to the General Assembly.
"If this legislature wants to tackle head-on the cost recovery for coal ash removal and cleanup, we'd be more than happy for you to do that," he said.