Raleigh, N.C. — Power companies would have to give the public faster notice of coal ash spills and more carefully handle the material left over after coal is burned for fuel, under a plan put forward Wednesday by Gov. Pat McCrory.
The suite of legislative proposals comes nearly three months after a spill sent an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.
McCrory's top environmental officials says the plan would result in "closing or converting" 33 coal ash ponds spread across 14 locations in the state, owned by power giant Duke Energy.
"No one size will fit all with coal ash," Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla said, adding that the governor will not ask lawmakers to require Duke Energy to dig up and move the ash from all of its ponds.
That response will not make environmental groups happy. Organizations such as the Southern Environmental Law Center have been pushing state government to require Duke to drain and dig up its ponds, moving the often toxic material to lined landfills.
Amy Adams, state coordinator for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit conservation organization, said McCrory's announcement "offers little to ease the concerns of citizens who demand long-term solutions to coal ash pollution."
"This administration seems to say one thing and do another," Adams said in a statement. "When the language of the proposed bill is released, the public will have a better idea if there is any substance to it or if it's just another PR move.”
In February, a Duke University expert said there are few, if any, reasons not to move a coal ash pond that posed an environmental risk.
"The only effective thing that anyone has ever put forward is to put the ash in a dry state in a lined landfill away from the river," said SELC lawyer Frank Holleman.
Skvarla called that blanket requirement "sophomoric." He said that moving coal ash ponds, which are typically perched a few hundred feet from rivers and lake, may not be practical in all cases.
"That might be the solution for some (of the ponds), maybe all," Skvarla told WRAL News, adding that the state wants to keep options to deal with the ash in other ways.
"That language is stated to make very clear that we're going to do the right science and engineering on each of the ponds," he said.
Duke Energy said it already working on ways to close its coal ash basins.
"Duke Energy looks forward to working constructively with the governor, lawmakers and regulators to determine the best coal ash management policies for North Carolina," a spokesman said by email. "Duke Energy has proposed a comprehensive ash management plan with both near-term and long-term actions that will address all retired sites, as well as pond management at active sites, in an environmentally sound way. We are reviewing the governor’s plan now."
Other proposals call for safer handling, quicker response
Coal ash is a generic name for material left over after coal is burned for electric power. Some of it comes from material filtered out of the air before it leaves a plant's smokestacks, while other parts are material that didn't burn in the first place. Although largely made up of inert materials, it can contain heavy metals and other toxins harmful to humans and wildlife.
After the Dan River spill on Feb. 2, the McCrory administration came under increased scrutiny for its handling of coal ash regulation. In particular, lawyers for environmental groups pointed to the state government's action in lawsuits filed to force Duke Energy to curb slow pollution leaks from 14 coal ash locations around the state.
"I know that the public and the General Assembly share our concerns about coal ash, and I ask them to work with me to make sure we tackle this problem head-on to address long-standing problems caused by the ash basins," McCrory said Wednesday.
Virtually all of the changes outlined Wednesday would require approval by the North Carolina General Assembly when lawmakers return to their full session in May. A legislative oversight committee on the environment is scheduled to consider legislative recommendations next week.
"We look forward to studying Gov. McCrory’s coal ash disposal plan. It appears to complement the work the legislature has been doing to ensure that we have both short-term fixes as well as long-term solutions to eliminate the threat of coal ash to North Carolina’s waterways,” Reps. Ruth Samuelson, Mike Hager and Chuck McGrady, co-chairmen of the state Environmental Review Commission, said in a statement.
McCrory's plan, a draft of which was released late in the day, would include a budget request for 19 new DENR staffers to enforce anti-pollution laws. He is also asking lawmakers to:
- Bring coal ash under the same solid waste laws that govern household trash. Currently, coal ash can be stored in unlined pits with less oversight than applies to trash that comes out of kitchen trash cans.
- Increase monitoring and oversight for coal ash when it is used a structural fill as part of a construction project
- Require that operators of coal ash ponds, mainly Duke Energy, submit "operational and emergency-action plans to the state."
- Require utilities more quickly report coal ash spills. Skvarla said the McCrory proposal would ask that utilities notify the public within 24 hours of a problem, instead of the current 48 hours.
- Require more inspections of coal ash dams. That would include weekly inspections by the dam owners and annual inspections by a third party.
The federal government is also looking at new coal ash regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been ordered to produce new coal ash handling rules by December. Those federal rules could go beyond what McCrory has proposed. Still, lawmakers could act faster.
"I'm going to be hard pressed to think that the General Assembly and members of the public in general won't want to act on this," Skvarla said.
But Holleman said many of the governor's proposals would be unnecessary if the state moves ahead more forcefully to require the ash be moved from riverbeds.
"We realize it can't be done immediately, but you can get started immediately," he said.