Coal ash bill lacks local support

Aug. 06, 2014 @ 05:02 PM

Six months after millions of gallons of water mixed with coal ash spilled 80 miles north of Kerr Lake, state legislators have not yet reached an agreement to close Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Tri-County legislators Rep. Nathan Baskerville, Sen. Angela Bryant and Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. voted against Senate Bill 729, or the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, in favor of bills that would prohibit Duke Energy from passing the costs of clean up on to the customers.

Baskerville said he couldn’t vote for SB 729 because it doesn’t protect customers from footing the bill on the cleanup.

“That is not good enough,” he said.

Baskerville and Bryant sponsored coal ash bills, which are not expected to move out of committee, that included a provision prohibiting any electric public utility from recovering from retail electric customers the costs associated with the site closures and ancillary clean-up.

The Coal Ash Management Act does not include similar language.

It requires Duke to close four high-risk coal ash sites — the Sutton Plant, Dan River Steam Station, Riverbend Station and the Asheville Plant — by 2019.

The fate of the remaining 10 sites would be the responsibility of a new commission, but lawmakers can’t decide whether to house the commission under the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources or the Department of Emergency Management.

A massive spill of coal ash on Feb. 2 at the Dan River Station in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge.

Samples from Kerr Lake, which serves about 60,000 customers, so far have returned no results suggesting danger to those drinking water or recreational swimmers. Kerr Lake is about 80 miles away from the site of the spill.

Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he and his colleagues oppose the bill in part because it includes language that would skirt existing law pertaining to groundwater contamination leaking onto a neighboring property.

“The bill tried to undercut a strong ruling by a North Carolina court that Duke has an immediate duty to eliminate groundwater contamination at its coal ash sites,” he said.

The environmental law center joined with citizens’ groups last year to file a lawsuit alleging the state failed to enforce the law by not requiring Duke to clean up underground plumes of pollution leaking from its ash pits — even when the contamination threatened neighboring properties and waterways.

Holleman said the bill could have been simple and straightforward with reasonable closure deadlines.

“It fails to protect the public health and our clean water by only requiring these four sites be cleaned up,” he said.

Drew Elliot, spokesperson at DENR, said the structured timelines are appropriate since clean-up at each coal ash site will vary.

“Each facility is different and the disposal options will be different,” he said. “The important thing is that we move forward in a data-driven and scientific way to address these long-standing problems. We are disappointed the legislature could not come to agreement but, in the meantime, we will move forward in any way we can.”

Rep. Paul Stam, the House’s second highest-ranking member, said all House members should be prepared to return Aug. 14, according to the Associated Press.

Senate Republicans have not stated plans to return before mid-November.

Gov. Pat McCrory told the AP an executive order he signed last week designed to fix coal ash pit problems and test drinking wells for ash contamination will help move the cleanup effort forward.

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.