House signs off on coal ash plan

House lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a coal ash management plan that critics say doesn't adequately protect utility customers or the state's water supplies.

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Coal ash
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — House lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to their version of Senate Bill 729, a plan to regulate and close down Duke Energy's coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

Both plans propose closing down the state's 33 coal ash ponds at 14 sites by 2029. Both list the same four sites as high priority, due to be closed within five years, with the ash to be put into lined landfills: Dan River near Eden, Riverbend in Gaston County, Asheville and Sutton near Wilmington.

Unlike the Senate plan, the House allows the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to extend Duke's deadline for closures if the work required isn't "economically reasonable" and would produce "serious hardship." 

The House version also returns to DENR an independent Coal Ash Commission the Senate created in the Department of Public Safety and eases groundwater testing boundaries.

Neither the House nor Senate version addresses whether Duke's shareholders or its customers will shoulder the cost of the clean-up. Critics of the measure say that's a major shortcoming.

Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, said customers have been paying for Duke's operating costs for years, while the utility's executives and shareholders have reaped large earnings.

The public "should not pay twice. They should not be billed twice. They've paid their fair share in the formulas that we've had," Hall said. "The business model is there to allow [clean-up costs] to be paid for by those who have benefited from profits and bonuses in the past." 

Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, blasted Democrats for "trying to drive a good corporate client of ours across the border." 

"The one thing we keep hearing is we need to get at all these evil shareholders at Duke," he said, pointing out that the state employee pension fund holds $136 million in Duke shares.

Collins said the utility's stock has been dropping while North Carolina lawmakers debate who will pay for the clean-up. 

"Congratulations. You’ve managed to drive $50 million out of our state pension fund," he said. "As far as the rhetoric, I wish we could learn to tame that down and not shoot ourselves in the foot and talk against our own folks."  

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, also defended Duke.

"Sitting here right now, we may very well be getting our energy from a coal-fired plant that’s generating ash. That cost ought to be borne by those of us who are using the energy," McGrady said. "To say that all the cost of all the coal ash needs to be borne by Duke’s shareholders, I don’t agree with that at all.”

Rep, Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, a sponsor of the House measure, urged critics to support the bill as a "first step in the process," saying it would put North Carolina in the lead nationally for coal ash regulation.

"We are charting new seas, guys. We’re on the forefront of this," Hager said. "This bill will protect our citizens and our state’s waters."

House Speaker Thom Tillis stepped down from the dais to debate the bill on the floor, defending the environmental bona fides of sponsors McGrady and Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, and asking opponents to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

"You have an opportunity to do something that’s truly historic," Tillis said. "We come back every year. We can come back and fight on the cost issue after we get more data." 

The final vote was 94-16. The proposal now returns to the Senate, where it's likely to be sent to conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers' versions.

Environmental advocates are hoping the Senate version prevails, but only, they say, because the House "took a weak bill and made it weaker." 

“After months of promising strong action on coal ash, the House delivered – for Duke," said D.J. Gerkin with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "This bill allows Duke to duck existing law requiring real cleanup of coal ash contamination. Instead, the bill allows Duke to cover its ash ponds with dirt and walk away, leaving it in unlined pits to pollute North Carolina's water for generations to come."

“There are no clear requirements in this legislation to ensure it does what it’s intended to do: remove the threat of coal ash to all our waters and all our communities,” said the Sierra Club's Dustin Chicurel-Bayard.

“Not only does the bill fail to add protections missing from the Senate version of the bill, but it appears to undermine a recent court ruling stemming from a citizen suit that would require Duke Energy to immediately eliminate the source of its groundwater contamination,” Chicurel-Bayard added.

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