As the state legislature continues to idle over a stalemate among House and Senate Republicans, a Wake County lawmaker is calling for action on a stalled coal ash clean-up plan.
After the Dan River coal ash spill in February, House and Senate leaders agreed that legislation to address the state’s 33 coal ash ponds was one of the session’s top priorities. But negotiations over the differences in the two chambers’ proposals broke down at the end of July.
Senate Leader Phil Berger has said he’d like lawmakers to come back November 17th, after the fall elections, to address both the coal ash plan and Medicaid reform. But House Speaker Thom Tillis said Friday the House prefers to adjourn sine die this week and skip the November session, pushing the bill to 2015 instead.
Governor Pat McCrory has issued an executive order calling for clean-up assessments to begin at the state’s four most-hazardous ash ponds. Duke Energy, which owns all 33 ponds, has already announced plans to clean out those four and begin the process of closing others. But environmental advocates say neither option carries much weight or accountability, and neither will protect Duke customers from bearing the cost of the clean-up.
Rep. Grier Martin, who received an award Monday from the League of Conservation Voters, insisted there is still time in the waning days of the session for House and Senate negotiators to bridge their differences.
“There is no debate that there has been a failure to fix the coal ash problem,” he said.
Martin, a Democrat, insisted the problem is not partisan.
“There are some great Republicans who are working hard to fix the coal ash problem,” he said, naming Reps. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg. “Their dedication to this cause and their true passion for it cannot be questioned at all.”
“In the end, it is not a partisan failure. It is a leadership failure. It is a failure by Speaker Tillis, it is a failure by Senator Berger, and it is a failure by Governor McCrory,” Martin said. “If we leave town without a fix for the coal ash problem, I sincerely hope that the voters will understand that and hold those responsible at the voting booth in November. “
Martin also spoke against waiting until a November special session to finish work on a deal.
“The voters expected us to fix the problem, and fix the problem promptly,” he said. “The leadership knows that the fix that’s likely to pass is not going to satisfy the voters that it adequately protects them, and so they want to implement that legislation after the elections in November, when they can no longer be held accountable for it.”
Senate leaders have said delaying the measure until a November special session would allow greater focus on the issue, while providing time to work out remaining differences over timelines, definitions, and oversight.
But Tillis said Friday that if lawmakers were going to wait until November, there would be little difference in waiting till January instead, when the new session – and new lawmakers – could take up the issue.
Meantime, Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman agreed legislators should pass a plan promptly to "require Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution in all 14 communities across North Carolina," but cautioned that the two proposals to date would weaken state water protections.
"To date, the bills passed by the House and the Senate are not clean up bills," Holleman said. "The Legislature should pass a bill that truly cleans up Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution and not a bill that weakens North Carolina’s clean water laws. We want a clean up bill, but not a step backwards with the label 'Coal Ash' on it."