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Lawmakers to push legislation for coal ash cleanup

Posted February 11, 2014 12:55 p.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2014 1:47 p.m. EST

— The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee said Tuesday that he is drafting legislation that would force Duke Energy to clean up 14 coal ash ponds around North Carolina like the one that dumped thousands of gallons of toxic sludge into the Dan River last week.

"Just letting them sit there is not the answer to the problem," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.

Lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have balked at legislation in years past that would have forced power companies to remove the waste from their coal ash ponds.

The ponds are an older method of storing what's left over after power plant burns coal. More modern methods store the coal as dry material, rather than in wet ponds perched near the same rivers and lakes that supply water boiled to turn steam turbines, as was the case in the Dan River incident. 

The General Assembly is not in session, but an interim environmental oversight committee was to meet Wednesday to review actions taken with regard to the coal ash spill and discuss possible responses. That meeting has been postponed until Monday due to a pending snow storm in Raleigh.

However, Apodaca said the legislature, or at least the state Senate, will put forward a cleanup bill when it returns to session in May. He has asked legislative staff to draft a bill that would require Duke to dry out the ponds and move the ash to another kind of storage site, possibly a hazardous waste landfill. Those are steps called for by environmental groups that have participated in lawsuits intended to force Duke to curb leaks from the coal ash ponds. 

The spill has affected both North Carolina and Virginia, because the Dan River flows from Rockingham County across the state line. 

"Given the damage to Virginia waters that has already occurred, the best option for mitigating future harm is to move the toxic coal ash out of these unlined, earthen pits and into dry, lined landfills away from the rivers and lakes we rely on for drinking water and recreation," Cale Jaffe, director of the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a news release about the Dan River spill.

Duke has talked about taking various approaches to the coal ash problem. They include "capping in place" coal ash ponds, which would dry them out and top them with an impermeable cover. Environmentalists say such methods could still threaten groundwater supplies.

Apodaca said he doesn't like the idea of leaving large amounts of toxic materials perched along waterways and highways throughout the state. 

"What I keep hearing is we don't know how to do it," he said. "Well, it's time we start figuring out how to do it."

Apodaca said a coal ash pond near his western North Carolina district is three times larger than the one on the Dan River.

"I notified Duke of our intentions," he said. "We want a solution somehow."

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a former Sierra Club president, said he has talked with Apodaca and would be interested in introducing a similar bill in the House.

"What happened on the Dan River was a wake up call," McGrady said. 

Duke spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann said that the company doesn't typically comment on pending legislation.

"We've already come out and said that we're accountable for (the spill)," Hoffmann said.

The company, she said, was already accelerating its long-term planning for dealing with the coal ash ponds, adding, "We'll be working with all the appropriate stakeholders."