NC Senate gives final OK to ash bill

06/25/2014 3:45 PM

06/25/2014 3:46 PM

The N.C. Senate gave final, bipartisan approval Wednesday to a 15-year plan to close Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds in the state, sending the measure to the House.

The unanimous vote included several changes to the bill, including more explicit standards for closing Duke’s 33 ponds in response to environmental advocates’ complaints.

Senate leader Phil Berger called the measure a substantial improvement of state policy on ash and “an example of how good quality (legislation) can result from difficult circumstances.”

Berger referred to the Feb. 2 ash spill in his hometown, Eden, that focused legislators’ attention on ash in this year’s short session.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat who proposed several amendments, said he regretted that the bill places the costs of closing Duke’s ponds “on the backs of ratepayers.” The legislation holds shareholders accountable only for the costs of cleaning up spills, not for closing ponds.

But Stein thanked Berger and rules committee chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who guided it through the Senate, for a “very serious and substantive bill. I think this is a step in the right direction for North Carolina and certainly an improvement over state law.”

One of the amendments added Wednesday addresses groundwater contamination, which has been found around ash ponds at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants.

The change says the point at which contamination is deemed a violation of state standards, called the compliance boundary, would no longer be the source’s property boundary. It means Duke couldn’t buy land bordering its power plants to avoid violations.

Other amendments insert explicit specifications for closing ash ponds, such as the density of liners for ash ponds converted to landfills and caps over ash that will stay in ponds.

The House version of the bill is in the environment committee, which meets Thursday morning. If it clears that committee, the bill would move to the public utilities committee.

“We hope the House will clearly address how to protect communities near ‘low-risk’ sites that are not appropriate for capping in place because of proximity of coal ash to groundwater or surface water sources. This is one of the most critical issues for the House to address,” the Sierra Club said.

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