Staff from the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service take core samples following the spill of coal ash into the Dan River. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Staff from the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service take core samples following the spill of coal ash into the Dan River. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Gabe Rivin

The General Assembly will wait until November to try to pass a bill that addresses coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal-fired electricity that has contaminated subsurface water across the state.

Gov. Pat McCrory at a legislation-signing event in 2013. McCrory will have to wait until at least November to sigh coal ash legislation. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office

Gov. Pat McCrory will have to wait until at least November to sign coal ash legislation. In the meantime, he issued an executive order Friday afternoon to hire personnel and begin groundwater assessments at the state’s 14 coal ash sites.

Legislators, delayed by a lengthy debate on the state’s budget, left little time to finish their work on coal ash. Instead, they will return for a special session in November. In that session, they’ll attempt to finish work on coal ash and a reform of the state’s Medicaid system.

A bill to address coal ash had been a high priority among legislators during this year’s short session, which began in May and will end Saturday. The February spill of coal ash into the Dan River galvanized members of both chambers, who watched as an estimated 39,000 tons of ash turned the Dan a pale gray.

The Senate passed its version of a coal ash bill on June 25, and the House passed its version on July 3. Both bills would require Duke Energy to close its 33 unlined ash ponds by 2029.

Both chambers’ bills have been controversial among lawmakers and environmentalists. The House’s bill, for instance, contains a provision that some said would undermine a judge’s order that Duke immediately clean up its groundwater contamination. The House bill would also allow Duke to request an extension for the closure of its sites, a provision that was not included in the Senate’s bill.

The two chambers had been negotiating a compromise bill for several weeks in a conference committee. But that work fell apart, according to Senate leadership, after three of the four House conferees tried at the last minute to insert new legislative language.

“This last-second surprise provision had not been researched, vetted or debated by the 167 other legislators,” said a press statement from Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), the Senate’s Pro Tempore, and Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville), the chairman of the Senate’s Rules committee.

A map showing the 14 coal ash sites across North Carolina. Duke Energy now owns Progress Energy’s former sites. Graphic courtesy N.C. DENR

Environmentalists said that Duke is already obligated to clean up the contaminated groundwater near its ash ponds and that the new legislation would allow the utility to delay its work.

“State environmental officials don’t need any additional action from the legislature to allow them to demand a comprehensive cleanup that stops the rampant pollution of rivers, streams and groundwater, and leaves communities at risk,” said Amy Adams, an organizer with the environmental group Appalachian Voices, in a press statement.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in fact, has sued Duke, citing current law that requires Duke to clean up contaminated groundwater.

Coal ash is produced when coal is burned for fuel. For decades, Duke has stored its ash in unlined ponds. Those ponds have leached the ash’s elements into groundwater, which nearby residents rely upon for drinking water.

The ash contains a number of toxic constituents that are known to harm humans.

The General Assembly’s debate over coal ash has at times been bitter. In the House, members fought to classify their districts’ ash ponds as highly hazardous, which would have required Duke to close those ponds first.

In the end, both chambers’ bills only classified four sites as high risks, leaving a new commission to approve designations for the remaining 10 sites. The environmental requirements, and the deadlines to close the sites, would depend upon the sites’ classifications as low risk, medium risk or high risk.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...