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In late night drama, a compromise on coal ash bill fails

RALEIGH A measure to impose tougher regulations on coal ash disposal, one of the top Republican legislative priorities this session, hit a wall in the early morning hours Friday when House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on a compromise bill.

The Senate adjourned shortly after 12:30 a.m. without a vote on compromise measures put forward by either chamber and blamed the House for the impasse, saying three top lawmakers went “in a rogue direction” that derailed the legislation.

“They wanted to play their games and that’s fine,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, the No. 2 Republican who led the Senate effort. “If that’s what they what to do with the environment of North Carolina and the people, that’s their choice.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville and a House negotiator, took to Twitter to say he was “very surprised” the Senate didn’t act but said it was “better than a weak bill.”

A last-minute change to the Senate’s adjournment resolution added coal ash to the list of bills available for consideration when the legislature meets Nov. 17, keeping the prospect alive for a bill after the elections.

The House is likely to do the same; the chamber will meet Friday and may adjourn in the early morning hours Saturday.

The Senate thought it had a deal Thursday but it started dissolving shortly after noon. As the clock ticked closer toward the Senate’s adjournment lawmakers on both sides scrambled to find a solution but ultimately chose not to take action.

Earlier in the day, McGrady said the negotiators reached “loggerheads” and lawmakers said the dispute involved which regulators should determine the risk level of Duke Energy coal ash ponds at 10 locations.

The House wanted to give the state Department of Natural Resources the authority while the Senate assigned the task to an appointed commission housed outside DENR.

The company is facing pressure after a February incident spilled 39,000 tons of slurry and sludge into the Dan River north of Greensboro, underscoring the risks inherent in storing coal in giant outdoor lagoons.

The decision on the risk level would determine what actions the Charlotte-based power company would need to take to close the ponds, which environmental advocates say threaten drinking water and rivers.

The House tried to make a counter offer at the last minute but the Senate didn’t consider it. One House member, state Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican and House GOP whip, signed the earlier conference report but his colleagues did not.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, complained at one point Thursday night that the House hadn’t even seen the conference report the Senate had signed.

Moments after the Senate adjourned, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who represents Eden where the spill occurred, was left explaining to reporters why lawmakers couldn’t finish the deal.

“We passed a strong bill out of the Senate, unanimously supported by Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that the House bill appeared weaker.

Instead of the normal conference committee process, Berger said, “what we had was three rogue members from the House pushing a provision that had not been vetted, that our staff couldn’t tell us what the consequence was. And so as a result of that, we are not coming out of this session with a strong coal ash bill.”

Pressed again, he added “just remember if you have something that is your highest priority, it doesn’t mean you just do anything. It means you try to get it right.”

Coal ash from power plants contains heavy metals, such a selenium and arsenic, that are unsafe in drinking water above certain concentrations. Duke Energy is storing about 106 million tons of the incinerated waste in open-air pits at 14 sites in North Carolina.

North Carolina is the first state in the nation to attempt to create a comprehensive coal ash cleanup program as other states await an ash-management proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due later this year.

The Charlotte power company has said it could cost $10 billion to remove the material to safer facilities that are designed not to contaminate underground water sources. Duke officials have warned that cleanup proposals from the Republican-controlled legislature are too aggressive, but environmental activists say the legislative proposals leave open the possibility of leaving the ash at current locations indefinitely.

Environmental organizations have lobbied for a cleanup solution and have filed legal actions to shut down the ash pits operated by Duke’s two subsidiaries, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress.

Staff writer John Murawski contributed to this report

Frank: 919-829-4698
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