N.C. House approves coal ash bill

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2014 

The N.C. House voted 93-16 Thursday to approve a coal-ash bill that sets Duke Energy on a path of closing its 33 ash ponds but doesn’t resolve whether customers will pay for it.

Legislators will next try to resolve the House and Senate versions of the bill, which are broadly similar but have key differences.

Among them is wording in the House bill that environmentalists say guts a judge’s recent ruling on groundwater contamination from ash ponds.

Impassioned members argued in floor debate Thursday that Duke’s shareholders should pay ash pond costs estimated at up to $10 billion. The bill doesn’t address cleanup costs for anything other than ash spills.

“In the end we’ve got a bill that in my mind doesn’t adequately protect a family’s drinking water, in the face of known threats that fails to counter those threats, and makes consumers pay for a mess they didn’t create,” said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.

Bill supporters countered that cost decisions should be be left to the state Utilities Commission and its consumer advocacy staff.

“That’s a far better group of people to make those decisions instead of a body that some people have already said is moving too fast,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and bill sponsor. “We have not ignored ratepayers in this bill. We have honored them in the best way possible.”

In a final flurry of amendments following the 21 changes debated Wednesday night, House members:

•  Charged the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with making recommendations on the 15-year schedule the bill sets for Duke to drain its ash ponds. Members said that duty might be shifted in conference with the Senate to the newly-created Coal Ash Management Commission.

• Voted down a motion to add to the nine-member commission a representative of neighbors who live near ash ponds. The bill instead reserves a seat only for a “resident of the state.”

Neighbors “are the experts because they’re survivors … they’ve been living near these coal ash ponds,” said Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Democrat from Charlotte. “Why can’t we give them a voice?”

The majority argued that living near the ponds don’t make residents experts in the scientific and engineering details that the commission will hash out.

• Voted down a deletion of wording in the bill that environmentalists say conflicts with a judge’s ruling in March. The judge said the state can force Duke to take “immediate action” on cleaning up groundwater contamination sources.

Contamination has been found at all 14 of Duke’s N.C. power plants, although the sources are in dispute.

Bill sponsors said the change was intended to counter broad interpretations of “source” that could be applied to public waste facilities as well as ash ponds.

The judge’s ruling “would suggest that when you have an exceedance of a (state) permit the only option is for you to remove the source of that contamination,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who worked on the bill. “That sounds a little logical, but what about municipal solid waste landfills? Is a city going to move all that trash away?”

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents groups suing Duke, said it’s critical that contamination be stemmed at the source before ash cleanups begin.

“It is an attempt to get around the judge’s order and we’ll have to play it out in litigation,” Holleman said of the bill. “What they’re trying to do is what Duke and DENR wanted all along, and that’s to get around their obligation to eliminate the source first and do the cleanup second.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender

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