Two top Republicans in the North Carolina Senate introduced a bill this week they say will curb the threat of pollution from coal ash dumps, three months after a massive spill at a Duke Energy plant coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
The bill is based on an earlier proposal from Gov. Pat McCrory that stops short of requiring Duke to remove all of its coal ash from unlined pits near rivers and lakes, as environmentalists have demanded. State regulators say all 33 of Duke’s dumps scattered at 14 sites across the state are contaminating groundwater.
The legislation would require Duke to submit closure plans for ash pits at four sites where Duke has already said it plans to remove the ash, including the Dan River plant where the spill occurred. But the proposal would allow Duke to propose alternative options at the 10 remaining sites, including simply covering the ash with plastic sheeting and soil and leaving it in place.
Duke told legislators last month it would take decades and could cost as much as $10 billion if it was required to move all its ash to lined landfills, with the utility’s ratepayers footing most of the bill.
The primary sponsors are Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. Both represent districts containing some of Duke’s ash pits.
Apodaca has previously said he wanted to require Duke to move all of its toxic ash to lined landfills. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the senators called McCrory’s plan was a place to start.
“Addressing the environmental concerns presented by coal ash ponds remains one of the Senate’s top priorities for this short session,” said Apodaca and Berger. “It’s important to get this conversation started right away, and Gov. McCrory’s proposal to handle the Dan River coal ash spill and other coal ash ponds is a good starting point.”
The bill would shorten the time period during which a dump owner would be required to notify the public of a sizable spill, from 48 hours to 24 hours. The legislation would also allow the state to keep secret portions of the emergency action plans Duke is required to submit to regulators laying out the potential impact of a dam failure at one of its dumps. Duke has previously said the public release of such information would endanger the security of its facilities.
McCrory quickly released a statement praising the senators for introducing his proposal.
“I look forward to working with lawmakers to find solutions for this more than 60-year-old problem,” said McCrory, who retired from Duke after more than 28 years with the company.
Environmental groups noted portions of McCrory’s proposal bear a strong resemblance to the terms of a proposed court settlement that the governor’s administration and Duke negotiated last year to resolve groundwater pollution violations at two of its coal ash sites.
That agreement, which was abandoned in the wake of the Dan River spill, would have allowed Duke to settle its violations by paying a $99,100 fine with no requirement to clean up its ash.
Critics say the bill is more of the same.
“The administration should be enforcing the law, not trying to weaken it to bail out Duke Energy,” said D.J. Gerken, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I hope the legislature will see the governor’s sweetheart bill for what it is and start over — with real action to protect North Carolina families by moving coal ash to dry, lined storage away from our waterways and drinking water.”
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