The proposed House version of a bill directing the cleanup of coal ash pits operated by Duke Energy in North Carolina leaves the door open to ease a strict 15-year timeline that the Senate wants.
A draft bill released Tuesday to House Environment Committee members would follow the plan the Senate approved last week by directing Duke to close all of its coal ash dumps at 14 sites by 2029. But it also would give power to the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to grant a variance on any deadline.
Duke Energy would have to convince the secretary that compliance couldn’t be met through the “application of best available technology found to be economically reasonable at the time, and would produce serious hardship without equal or greater benefits to the public.”
The potential delay appears to benefit Duke Energy, which opposed the hard deadlines in the Senate version.
House members are “making sure that the timelines are workable,” Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, one of the authors of the bill, said in the committee meeting Tuesday before the draft was released.
The House version of the bill retains a provision of the Senate bill that would require ash housed in at least four sites labeled high-priority to be removed by August 2019. Also under both versions, a new state commission would determine the schedule for the remaining sites, through the end of 2029.
Legislation to clean up the coal ash sites has advanced after a spill in February at a Duke Energy plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge.
“We want to close the coal ash ponds down, and then we want to clean them up,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, another author of the House version. At least two committees were expected to consider the legislation Wednesday.
At the same meeting, Duke Energy lobbyist George Everett pointed to the bill’s requirement that certain studies and assessments be performed by the utility and state agencies; that public hearings take place; and that permits be approved.
“We just need time to do it. We’ll do it right,” Everett said.
The proposed Coal Ash Management Commission would rank the pits as high-, intermediate- and low-risk. Duke Energy would be required at high-risk sites to remove water from within the ponds, remove the ash and place it in a capped landfill with a liner inside, either at the original site or somewhere else. The ash also could be used by the construction industry. At low-risk sites, the commission would require ash pits to be capped. Groundwater monitoring at all sites would be required for 30 years.
Before the draft legislation was released, representatives of environmental groups told the committee they didn’t like provisions that would allow some sites to be cleaned up differently than others. The bill only explicitly requires the removal of ash from four Duke plants: Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend.
“There is no low-risk coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina,” said Donna Lisenby, global coal campaign coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance. She pointed to well tests at homes near the coal ash ponds at Duke’s Buck plant that found the presence of a known carcinogen.
Like the Senate plan, the House bill would leave it to the state Utilities Commission to determine whether Duke Energy could recoup expenses for the coal ash closures in the form of consumer rate increases. But the company would be prevented from seeking recovery for the Dan River cleanup costs.
Gov. Pat McCrory remains concerned about the composition of the coal ash commission, in which six of the nine members would be appointed by the House speaker and legislative leaders, McCrory general counsel Bob Stephens told the committee. After the meeting, Stephens stopped short of saying whether the governor would veto the measure if it wasn’t changed. The House version gives the governor the authority to choose the commission chairman.
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