Senate gives initial approval to coal ash cleanup plan

The state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to give preliminary approval to legislation that would require coal ash ponds across North Carolina to be cleaned up in 15 years.

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Coal ash pond at Duke Energy plant in Moncure
Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to give preliminary approval to legislation that would require coal ash ponds across North Carolina to be cleaned up in 15 years.

A final Senate vote is expected Wednesday before the measure heads to the House.

The bill would require Duke Energy to close four "high-risk" coal ash sites by Aug. 1, 2019. Meanwhile, the state would work to prioritize the other 10 sites statewide where ash is stored in giant lagoons. Any others rated as high risk would also have a 2019 deadline assigned for cleanup, while those rated as intermediate risks would have to be excavated and closed by 2024. Sites deemed to be low risk could be capped and left in place but would have to be closed by 2029.

The priority list includes ash ponds near Eden, where a February ash spill fouled about 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge, in Asheville, near Wilmington and in Gaston County. Several Democrats tried to add sites in their districts to that list, but their amendments were defeated easily.

Coal ash ponds in NC

Priority list pits communities against each other

"People are anxious, not because they're not at the front of the line but because they don't know why," said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, noting that no reason was given for singling out the four priority sites other than Gov. Pat McCrory included them when he first rolled out his plan to clean up the ash ponds this spring.

"If we're going to get into petty bickering over 'Mine's more important than yours,' we're going to be here all night and not accomplish anything," said bill sponsor Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, noted that the preliminary list of ash ponds is irrelevant because a new state commission and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will eventually set the order in which each site is addressed.

"We're nit-picking this bill to death," Tillman said. "The commission will decide where the priorities are."

Duke officials have expressed concern over what they see as an aggressive schedule to clean up the ash ponds, especially those on the priority list.

The cleanup cost is estimated at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion, depending on how much of the ash Duke must excavate from each pond and dispose in lined landfills and how much it can simply cover with a barrier and leave sitting where it is.

Duke has said it plans to pay for damage caused by the Dan River spill – the bill also would require the utility to pay for cleaning up any future ash spills – but it plans to pass as much of the rest of the cleanup cost on to customers through higher electric rates.

Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, tried to introduce an amendment that would have required Duke to pick up the entire tab of the cleanup, but Apodaca said that decision should be left up to the state Utilities Commission. He then used a parliamentary procedure to kill the Woodard's amendment without a vote.

That angered Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, who asked that Apodaca allow a vote on the proposal. Apodaca twice refused, even once when he was bargaining with Stein to withdraw a separate amendment that would require liners on any ash ponds allowed to remain where they are. Apodaca said he would work with Stein on his proposal, which could resurface Wednesday.

One amendment that was approved would require the state Department of Transportation and the State Construction Office to come up with specifications that would allow coal ash to be used in concrete on highway and building projects. Apodaca noted that the state doesn't have enough landfill space to handle all of the coal ash in North Carolina, so alternative ways to dispose of it are needed.

"This is not an exact science," he said. "We're all trying to do the best that we can, and I think this is the best first step."

Woodard called the bill "not perfect," but he urged lawmakers to back it even without the amendments.

"I'm not going to let perfect stand in the way of good," he said.

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