Bill gives ash exemptions to Duke Energy power plant

A bill introduced Wednesday in the North Carolina Senate could give Duke Energy three extra years to close the two coal ash ponds at its Asheville power plant.

The measure introduced by Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, follows Duke’s announcement Tuesday that it would close the plant’s coal-burning units by 2020 and replace them with one fueled by natural gas.

Apodaca’s bill directs the state Utilities Commission to reach a decision on a permit for the gas plant within 45 days of Duke’s application.

The bill also allows the Asheville plant two exemptions from the Coal Ash Management Act enacted last September.

The exemptions take effect in August 2016 if, by then, the Utilities Commission has issued a permit for the gas plant based on Duke’s written commitment to close the coal units by early 2020.

One exemption lets the plant avoid a state requirement that all Duke plants convert their ash handling to dry form by the end of 2019. Ash is now commonly mixed with water and stored in ponds that have been linked to contamination.

The other provision gives Duke until 2022 to close the plant’s two ash ponds. Last year’s ash law labeled Asheville one of four high-priority plants where ash ponds had to be closed by 2019.

Apodaca said his intent was to allow Duke more time to shut down its coal operation while building the gas plant at the same time.

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the coal units will have to continue operating until the new gas plant goes online in late 2019 or early 2020.

Duke stores 3 million tons of ash in the Asheville ponds. The company expects to finish moving ash from the smaller of the ponds to the Asheville airport by September.

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Twitter: @bhender