A four-hour legislative meeting on Duke Energy’s Feb. 2 coal ash spill ended Monday with sharp exchanges over North Carolina’s policing of the waste but little clear direction on policy changes.
Duke apologized again for dumping up to 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River, and repeated that it is reassessing its ash-handling practices. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has also created an ash task force. A federal court last week issued subpoenas to both as part of a criminal investigation.
Some legislators want to phase out Duke’s ash ponds, which are sprinkled at 14 active and retired power plants across the state, including two near Charlotte. But any such legislation would have to pass through the Environmental Review Commission, which held Monday’s meeting, to reach the floor in a short session that begins in May.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, the Charlotte Republican who is one of the panel’s three co-chairs, said tweaks to existing laws – such as on public notification of spills – seem more likely than major overhauls this year.
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“At this point, we have an obligation to to listen, watch and ask questions,” she said after the meeting. The co-chairs plan to meet soon on what happens next, she said. The Environmental Protection Agency says it will issue the first federal ash rules in December.
Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, another co-chair, said he favors a legislative study commission to prioritize high-risk contamination sites including ash ponds across the state.
“Hopefully, it’s a wake-up call and hopefully more comes of this than did after the Tennessee Valley Authority spill in 2009. And we get legislation that prevents this kind of thing from happening again,” said Richard Gaskins, executive director of Charlotte-based Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, who testified.
“We know what needs to be done. Duke knows what needs to be done.”
Environmentalists insist Duke needs to remove ash stored in ponds near water supplies, like the Dan and Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s water supply.
Duke has said it will leave ash in place at its seven retired N.C. plants, capping it to keep out water, or mucking out the ash and hauling it to landfills. Company officials said Monday they’re reassessing that.
“We will eventually close the ponds, but it is a long process,” George Everett, Duke’s director of environmental and legislative affairs, told the commission. “We think our plans are solid but we have to get approval of those plans. Last week we formed a new team to review all ash ponds. Simply put, we’re taking another look at those plans.”
Amid polite questioning from commission members, state Sen. Austin Allran posed this: Wasn’t it “not very smart” for Duke Energy to store coal ash in an unlined pond with a metal pipe under it?
“Why would you not put a liner under an ash dump?” the veteran Hickory lawmaker asked a Duke official.
Allran wondered why Duke had not previously inserted a camera into the corrugated metal pipe that broke at the retired Dan River power plant. Corrugated metal, he added, is of a type that “break all the time. They break all over the state of North Carolina.”
“What they did wouldn’t make much common sense to most people,” he said later.
Everett replied that hindsight is perfect.
“The pipe was good when it was put in” in the 1950s, he said. The ash pond was expanded over the pipe in 1968. This month, Duke discovered that only the part of the 1,100-foot pipe that was also later lengthened was made of concrete, the rest metal.
Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, said it’s not clear why Duke’s call to a state hotline the day of the spill wasn’t relayed to his staff until the next morning.
The newly-created task force, he said, is “going to look at all this with a fresh set of eyes.”
Gaskins, of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, told commission members that the public was lucky Duke spilled its ash from the relatively small Dan River ash ponds. Ponds on the Catawba, he said, are far larger.
More spills, and contaminated seepage from ash pond dams, “are inevitable if we continue to have unlined ash ponds sitting next door to water supplies,” he said.
DENR and the Southern Environmental Law Center also sparred at the meeting over whether the environment department has shirked its duty in regulating ash. The department filed lawsuits against Duke last year, but only after the law center’s clients gave notice they were prepared to sue Duke themselves.
“DENR has taken credit for enforcing the law only when we forced them to,” said law center attorney Frank Holleman, who represents the groups battling Duke in court. Critics say the state filed its suits only to block the advocates.
Environment Secretary John Skvarla responded by asking why environmentalists had waited five years after a landmark ash spill in Tennessee to take their own action.
“It seems like to me that if it were all that important they would give me more than 17 days after I walk in the door” in January 2012, he said. “And what did DENR do? We filed four lawsuits against 14 power plants.... Do you think you just snap your fingers and put 14 lawsuits together overnight?”