Chapel Hill, N.C. — A state commission created this summer to find the best way to dispose of millions of tons of toxic coal ash across North Carolina met Friday for the first time to begin studying the issue.
The initial meeting of the Coal Ash Management Commission came one day after Gov. Pat McCrory and two former governors filed suit, contending that the way the commission was set up by lawmakers is unconstitutional.
Legislators created the commission outside the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to independently oversee DENR's regulation of Duke Energy's 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina.
Duke on Thursday filed initial plans to dispose of about 5 million tons of dry ash from four of its power plants. Altogether, the Charlotte-based utility has 152 million tons of ash stored in the state, 108 million of that in the form of watery ash slurry in lagoons.
The commission will have to approve all clean-up plans before DENR grants permits to carry them out. Over the next year, the panel will decide which sites Duke must excavate, which ones can just be sealed up, and how the state should manage coal ash in the future.
Friday's meeting was primarily a crash course in the science and engineering of coal ash, and Chairman Michael Jacobs was apparently trying to manage expectations in his opening statement, noting that the state's coal ash problem has been accumulating for 80 years and won't be solved overnight.
Environmentalists hope the new panel will be tougher on Duke than the state has been so far – lawmakers gave Duke 15 years to close and clean up all of its ash ponds but didn't specify how that should be done – while Duke is hoping the panel will be more business-friendly.
Duke has already set aside $3.4 billion for the clean-up effort, but company officials said the final price tag could hit $10 billion. Disposal costs will be a major factor in weighing options, Jacobs said, because the price will eventually be paid by Duke customers one way or another.
"There are tradeoffs that will need to be made between speed, effectiveness, safety and cost. All these factors are important," he said.
Commissioner Rajaram Janardhanam, an engineering professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies coal ash, said he wants to make sure the clean-up process doesn't cause additional harm to the environment. He's concerned about the release of untreated water from coal-ash pits into nearby aquifers as part of that process.
"Do it slowly, cautiously and also meticulously," Janardhanam said. "(It's) very challenging, but it is a good job to be done for the goodness of the people."
Coal ash ponds across NC
McCrory is trying to strip away some of the commission's power. He and former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Martin want a judge to rule that various oversight panels set up by lawmakers violate the doctrine of the separation of powers, exceeding legislative authority and interfering with a governor's executive ability to carry out state laws.
Legislative leaders called the lawsuit frivolous, saying court rulings have upheld the legality of previous oversight commissions.
Jacobs pledged the coal ash panel would not be influenced by elected officials.
"This commission will focus on science, safety and economics, not politics. It will report to the citizens of North Carolina, not a government entity," he said.
Scott Flanagan, who was appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, recently resigned his position on the nine-member commission. Flanagan, who lives in Eden, the site of a February coal ash spill in the Dan River that sparked renewed interest in the ash disposal issue, said in an Oct. 31 letter to Berger that he needed to spend more time with his construction business. There was no word on when a replacement would be named.
The commission plans to hold five more meetings around the state – the next one is scheduled for Jan. 14 at the McKimmon Center on the North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh – and members said they welcome public comments on coal ash.