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Coal ash bill goes to Gov. McCrory

Ash basins at half the 14 coal-fired power plants in the state could be covered and left where they are rather than excavated and moved into lined storage, as is required of the other seven, under a Senate bill the House approved Thursday night and sent to the governor.

Hundreds of neighbors of power plants who are concerned their drinking water wells could be contaminated by coal ash would be connected to municipal water supplies by the fall of 2018 under the bill.

The legislation requires Duke Energy to pay for the water hookups and make whatever dam repairs are needed at the basins. The utility would also be required to establish three centers in the state to process coal ash into structural concrete and other uses.

And the bill would take away an independent oversight commission that lawmakers had previously created, placing that authority within Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

The bill is meant to accelerate the delivery of water to neighbors, who have been living on bottled water supplied by Duke Energy for more than a year. A coal ash regulatory bill the governor vetoed earlier this year — over his insistence that he control oversight of the cleanup — would have required the utility to strike binding agreements for water hookups a year earlier.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, said the bill put public health and the environment at risk. She said independent oversight was needed, and said the remaining seven basins will be treated too leniently.

Duke Energy said the bill “will help ensure that science, not special interests, can provide the right closure solution for each of our sites."

Budget vote

The House voted 92-23 to approve the final state budget Thursday.

Teachers would get raises averaging 4.7 percent, other state employees would get a mix of across-the-board and merit raises, and income taxes would be cut.

With support from about 20 Democrats, the House approved the spending plan and is set to take a final vote Friday, sending it to McCrory.

But several of the 23 Democrats who voted “no” voiced opposition to lesser-known provisions of the budget.

The budget bill tweaks what services are subject to sales tax in a way that will generate an additional $22.4 million in the next fiscal year.

“The income tax is a fairer way to tax people than the sales tax. We are raising money from sales tax and we are reducing income tax,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said the sales tax changes are needed to clean up confusion from last year’s expansion of the tax to auto repairs and other repair, maintenance and installation services.

“We found out that if you had alterations done to your clothes, it was considered an installation,” he said.

Water provisions in the Senate budget were scaled back and now only address efforts to clean up Jordan Lake and Falls Lake.

The budget still provides a reprieve from development restrictions on upstream communities, but funds studies of possible efforts to improve water quality on the two lakes, which are drinking water sources for the Triangle.

Rep. Gale Adcock, a Cary Republican, said the provisions “do not protect water quality in the lake, do not protect downstream users.”

Staff writers Tim Funk, Jim Morrill, Craig Jarvis and Colin Campbell