New coal ash cleanup language was passed, to mixed reviews. Pollution restrictions affecting Triangle drinking water sources got delayed. Several regulation-busting proposals did not succeed.

By Catherine Clabby

North Carolina environmental groups, for the first time in years, are sounding sighs of relief at the end of the legislative session.

Environmentalists are applauding some — but not all — steps taken by legislators. In particular they favor requiring Duke Energy to provide new, permanent drinking water to people living near its coal ash waste.

NC House Speaker Tim Moore (R-King’s Mountain) gavelled the 2016 legislative session to a close last week. Lawmakers are slated to return to Raleigh in Jan. 2017. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

In addition, substantial regulation rollbacks — all of them with potential human health implications — stalled on Jones Street, meaning they won’t become law this year.

“It was a good year. A lot of really, really bad bills did not pass,” said Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney and lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Many bills were considered, sometimes in multiple versions, so we’ll sum up both what did and what did not happen before legislators headed home last week.

Coal ash law revisions

Legislators during their annual work session tried two different times to write bills governing how Duke Energy should go about cleaning up 100 million tons of coal ash waste on 14 properties.

Duke Energy’s Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant coal ash ponds. The DEQ has ranked the ponds as high risk. Photo courtesy Duke Energy.

Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the first coal ash bill he received, rejecting a plan to restore a coal ash management commission made up of members approved by the legislature.

(McCrory won a court battle against the original coal ash commission legislators created in 2014, successfully arguing it violated separation of powers under the North Carolina constitution.)

Under a new bill awaiting the governor’s signature, McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality will supervise cleanup of waste stashed primarily in unlined pits at 14 utility properties. The law, supported by Duke Energy, includes explicit guidance to DEQ hammered out by legislative leaders, particularly in the Senate, and the executive branch.

Among the most significant provisions:

New Rules: Duke must provide the new drinking water supplies for families whose private wells might be fouled by coal ash chemicals. The new water lines should link to municipal water systems where possible.

Deborah Graham (left) of Dukeville and Amy Brown (right) of Belmont received “do not drink” letters last year only to receive subsequent letters saying they could drink their well water. The two have campaigned to have Duke Energy provide their homes with piped-in fresh water. Photo courtesy of Amy Brown.

When a stormwater pipe failed and tens of thousands of tons of coal ash poured into the Dan River in Feb. 2014, the importance of structural integrity at the impoundments was made crystal clear. So, lawmakers also ordered the company to repair any insufficient dam structures separating coal ash from waterways

Excavation: The new bill may make it more likely that Duke will be able to skip digging up coal ash at seven locations. Excavation is required at seven sites by the 2014 state Coal Ash Management Act and a state court ruling this year. But the new law allows DEQ to label all remaining sites low risk, a ranking that may not require excavation if Duke provides the new water supplies, makes needed repairs, and addresses other “relevant” issues.

The new law retains a requirement that the utility “restore” any groundwater or surface waters shown to be contaminated by coal ash waste. But gone are some risk assessment requirements from the original law, including evaluations of threats to public health and safety, data on the extent of soil and groundwater contamination, data on nearby drinking water sources, geological features that might promote the spread of contaminants, chemicals in the ground at different sites, and proximity to flood plains.

The new law imposes the same deadlines for shuttering some coal ash impoundments: 2018 for high-risk sites, 2024 for intermediate-risk sites, and 2029 for low-risk sites. But legislators gave Duke extra time to submit closure plans for sites not deemed to pose high polluting risks. Closure plans for intermediate sites are now due 2019 rather than 2017. Plans for low-risk impoundments must be filed by 2019 rather than 2018.

Recycling: Duke Energy is required to pinpoint three coal ash locations capable of capable of processing 300,000 tons of ash to be used in cement products.

Nutrient Pollution, Lead Testing

Legislators did not, as proposed, approve budget language that would have imposed expiration dates on rules developed to limit nutrient pollution from farms, sewage, and tainted stormwater allowed into rivers and lakes.

Nor did they support a proposal to fund a study exploring whether freshwater mussels could clean up lakes clogged with algae due to nutrient pollution.

Lawmakers did delay implementation of nutrient management plans for watersheds flowing into Jordan Lake and Falls Lake, potentially to 2019 and 2022 respectively. Both lakes are sources of drinking water in the growing Triangle region.

Rules around nutrient management in the Jordan Lake watershed were delayed further this year. Map courtesy NC DEQ

That move, which environmentalists oppose, gives a reprieve to developers in Greensboro and Burlington for footing the costs of limiting stormwater flows from developed land into the Haw River basin upstream of Jordan Lake.

The budget does earmark $3 million for a UNC-Chapel Hill study to evaluate water quality strategies to reduce nutrient contamination in Falls Lake and Jordan Lake plans. And it grants DEQ $1.3 million to study “in situ” strategies to reduce nutrient pollution, meaning strategies to clean polluted water rather than prevent pollution. One failed effort in that vein was an earlier legislative directive that DEQ use solar-powered mixers, called SolarBees, to try to reduce algae in Jordan Lake.

Lawmakers also declined to take up a Senate bill that would have required lead testing of water in older schools and child day care sites. Lawmakers cited lead contamination in the water system of Flint, MI and worried about seeming to respond too slowly to such threats.

Structures built before 1987 are at greater risk of having lead contaminated water. That’s when rules banning the use of solder in supply pipes that corrosive water can leach lead from went into effect.

Water warnings, regulatory reform

Legislators also declined also to take up a bill that would have had the state use federal water quality standards rather than state health and groundwater standards to trigger health warnings on well water. The bill would have given only state health officials the freedom to issue such warnings, a proposal viewed by some as muzzling local and county public health officials.

One proposal would have enabled landfill managers to spray leachate collected at the bottom of landfills over the fill area, thus evaporating pooled water. Photo courtesy Innovative Equipment Solutions

And to the surprise of many observers, legislators did not agree on a regulatory reform bill, of the sort that in recent years has included sweeping changes to state environmental policies late in the legislative session.

In this case a bill entitled “Amend Environmental and Other Laws” would have eased requirements for developers to reduce stormwater runoff, a source of a range of pollutants, at some building sites. It also would have allowed water collecting at the bottom of some landfills to be sprayed into the air, in an effort to allow the water to evaporate. That would reduce the need to treat that water.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...