RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators on Thursday completed their approval of a new process to allow Duke Energy to use less expensive alternatives to clean up coal ash pits at seven sites while ensuring drinking water is piped to residents near the ponds in about two years.
The House voted 82-32 for legislation developed after Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed another bill that would have reinstated a state Coal Ash Management Commission approved in 2014 that he didn’t like and sued over. That commission is gone in the bill that surfaced this week and had already cleared the Senate. McCrory’s office didn’t immediately respond Thursday night to questions about the bill heading to his desk.
The new legislation allows alternatives to closing pits at half of Duke’s 14 sites without removing ash — like drying them out and closing them in place — if it supplies drinking water by October 2018 to neighbors of current or closed coal-fired power plants where ash is stored. The nation’s largest electric company also must repair dams around some pits.
People living near the plants are worried their groundwater is polluted by arsenic, chromium and other hazardous elements. Duke Energy has said the coal ash is not polluting water supplies. But the state has sent mixed messages to the residents about the level of safety.
Legislators decided against trying to override the earlier veto by McCrory, whose office had threatened another lawsuit over the commission’s composition and activities that could have opened the General Assembly to the loss of seats on other regulatory panels and delayed the drinking water efforts.
“The public hates governmental gridlock,” said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, the chief supporter of the bill in the House, which he calls “a compromise plan that moves forward protecting all North Carolina citizens.”
Environmental groups, people living near the plants and House members against the bill on the floor opposed the final product, with some suggesting it was designed to get Duke Energy out of potentially $10 billion in costs to excavate the ash from more than 30 ponds at all 14 sites.
“At what point do we sacrifice public health for cost?” asked Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. “We just can’t make that trade.”
McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality had determined in May that, based on risks set in a 2014 state law, ash from all the ponds would have to be removed by 2024. But the department and Duke Energy both said they wanted lawmakers to change state law to allow less costly options.
There have been public hearings and thousands of public comments to DEQ about how the cleanups would occur.
The legislature “protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a release.
But Duke Energy said in a statement that the bill is a “bipartisan solution that protects the environment and local communities, while preserving the full range of options to safely close ash basins in ways that also protect customer bills.” Duke has said the cost would be paid by ratepayers.
Legislators backing the agreement said the updated law was still a strong one and would bring peace of mind to homeowners around the ponds. Others predicted the cleanup likely be revisited in the future
“This won’t be the last time we talk about coal ash,” said state Rep. Dana Bumgardner of Gaston County, where one of the coal-fired plants and ash are located.
Initial coal ash regulations and the coal ash commission were created several months after a February 2014 ash spill coated 70 miles of the Dan River in a toxic sludge. Legislators at the time said they wanted the commission to monitor the activities of state environmental regulators. Lawmakers also want more eyes on the activities of Duke Energy, where McCrory previously worked for nearly 30 years.