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Duke Energy’s coal-burning plant on Asheville’s Lake Julian is one source of the coal ash that’s become an environmental hot potato in state policy. A new NC coal ash bill could face hurdles in the legislature. Frank Taylor/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH — New NC coal-ash legislation moved quickly through the state Senate yesterday, passing by a wide margin of 44-4.

But the legislation, the result of a compromise between Senate leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory, may have a more difficult time in the House.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, the main author of the 2014 NC Coal Ash Management Act and a follow-up bill passed this session that was vetoed by the governor, said he does not support the current bill.

In an email response to questions from Carolina Public Press, McGrady said the bill does not provide enough oversight over how the Department of Environmental Quality handles the classification of sites and their cleanup.

“One of my concerns has always been oversight,” McGrady said.

He joins Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who said the bill gives too much leeway to DEQ and Duke Energy.

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Since the Senate substituted the 33-page coal ash for language in an unrelated bill previously passed House bill, the new Drinking Water Protection and Coal Ash Cleanup Act cannot be amended. The House has yet to schedule a vote on the matter, but the House Rules Committee was scheduled to consider the bill Wednesday afternoon.

Like S71, which was passed earlier in the session and was vetoed by the governor, the new bill would require Duke Energy to provide drinking water either through water lines or filtration systems to residents within a half mile of the sites. DEQ would also assess how far contaminants from the coal ash ponds had traveled in groundwater and could require further measures for clean water.

Under the bill, if Duke Energy has provided the water lines or filtration systems and can certify that the company has fixed leaks or problems with dams at a site, then DEQ would be required to classify the site as low risk, a designation that could result in approval to cap the site and leave the coal ash residuals in place in unlined basins.

The bill also requires the utility to set up three sites to further burn the coal ash and prepare it for beneficial use. The sites have yet to be designated.

In an interview after a committee hearing on the bill yesterday DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said the three facilities would go through the state’s air-quality permitting process.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the bill’s main sponsor said the bill was a good compromise.

“The issue of coal ash is complex, but our goal is simple —have a smart, science-driven process that keeps our residents safe and our power reliable — and this bill does that,” he said.

Environmental organizations said the bill opens the door for too many sites to be capped in place.

In a statement released yesterday, Frank Holleman, a lead attorney for coal-ash cases with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the bill bails out Duke Energy by delaying the process.

“Following closed-door meetings, the North Carolina Senate today moved to change state law to delay and provide Duke Energy loopholes to avoid coal ash cleanups,” Holleman said.

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“This coal-ash bill is damning proof that the families and communities of North Carolina can’t rely on state politicians to protect their drinking water supplies from Duke Energy’s coal-ash pollution.”

Duke Energy had a more favorable response to the proposed legislation.

We support this bill and appreciate that the legislature and administration continue to seek solutions to protect the environment and local communities, while preserving the full range of options to safely close ash basins in ways that also protect customers’ pocketbooks,” a statement from the company said.

In Western North Carolina, Duke operates coal ash storage facilities near its coal-burning plants in Rutherford and Buncombe counties.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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