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N.C. legislators reach compromise on coal-ash bill

Coal Ash Spills
Erica Yoon - AP
Madeline Schreiber, a Virginia Tech associate professor of hydrogeology, pulls sediment samples from the Dan River in Danville, Va., in July for testing.

North Carolina House and Senate leaders announced a compromise on a stalled coal ash bill late Tuesday, days before legislators end their session.

Both chambers put Charlotte-based Duke Energy on track to drain its 33 North Carolina ash ponds within 15 years. But last-minute changes between them derailed the bill on Aug. 1 and appeared unlikely to be resolved until at least November, if not next year.

Coal ash has been a top legislative priority since a Feb. 2 ash spill, the nation’s third-largest, from a Duke Energy power plant in Eden into the Dan River.

“Since Day One, the House and Senate have agreed that fixing coal ash is a top priority, and I am proud of my colleagues for following through to deliver the most comprehensive, aggressive and science-driven mitigation plan in the entire country,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, who lives in Eden, said in a statement.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said the legislation “to clean up North Carolina’s decades-old coal ash problem will be the first in the nation to address this issue.”

The House and Senate could vote as early as Wednesday.

The legislation mandates that ash be excavated at only four of Duke’s 14 North Carolina coal-fired power plants. “Low-risk” ponds can be capped in place without removing ash.

House and Senate members had split earlier over a House move to ensure that ponds could not be deemed low risk if they sat below the level of groundwater, which could become contaminated.

The compromise bill doesn’t prohibit capping those ponds, according to a copy obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Instead, it allows the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to permit capping if DENR is convinced ash elements won’t contaminate groundwater.

Other changes:

• A new coal ash oversight commission could grant three-year, instead of open-ended, extensions of the 15-year timetable for Duke to close its ponds.

• The coal ash oversight commission would be housed within the N.C. Department of Public Safety instead of under DENR, as the House had wanted.

• A moratorium on Duke seeking rate hikes to pay for coal ash cleanup would expire in January 2015, as the Senate bill had stated. The House had pushed for the moratorium to end in December 2016.

• Groundwater contamination that extends outside a so-called compliance boundary would have to be assessed and a corrective action plan submitted. The House bill had reversed a court decision that the state could order “immediate action” to clean up contamination sources.

Contaminated groundwater has been found near ash ponds at all of Duke’s coal plants. The Southern Environmental Law Center said the committee changes seek “to weaken existing law and protect Duke Energy from taking responsibility for its coal ash waste.”

“Allowing coal ash to be left in unlined, leaking pits across North Carolina with documented groundwater contamination at each site is not a cleanup plan nor does it protect the people of North Carolina,” the center said.

The House was in session Tuesday and returns Wednesday. The Senate convenes for the week Wednesday.

Duke has said it will press ahead with an ash disposal plan the company proposed in March. That plan includes removing ash or accelerating its removal from four power plants, including Riverbend near Charlotte.

DENR has asked Duke to submit plans for removing coal ash from those plants by Nov. 15. The request followed Gov. Pat McCrory’s Aug. 1 executive order on ash when legislation stalled.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport rejected placing Riverbend ash under an airfield. But last week the city staff proposed a land swap with Duke to bury the ash. Duke is considering the offer.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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