Democrats introduce aggressive coal ash bill

Duke Energy would have to move the coal ash in its 33 ponds to lined landfills, without billing customers, under a measure introduced this week by House Democrats.

The bill is far more aggressive than an ash management plan Gov. Pat McCrory introduced in April, two months after a Duke ash pond dumped up to 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River. It’s also likely to go further than a Republican bill expected to be filed in the next week or two.

The measure would close four “high-risk” ash ponds at Duke’s Riverbend, Dan River, Asheville and Sutton plants by 2017. Other ponds would be closed, depending on their risk levels, between 2019 and 2029. Ash would be buried in lined landfills on the same power plant sites where the ponds are located.

The state Utilities Commission would be barred from allowing Duke to recover from customers the ash pond costs it incurred after Jan. 1.

Duke has said the company will pay to clean up the Dan River spill, and that is now underway. But the company has said it will ask the state Utilities Commission to pass the cost of closing other ash ponds – estimated by Duke to cost up to $10 billion – to consumers.

The bill bans construction of new ash ponds. Newly generated ash has to be buried in lined landfills or used for “beneficial” purposes such as making concrete.

“If (Duke) had not spent the last five years fighting every measure I introduced, or that came down from the federal level, I would have more sympathy with their plight,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, one of the bill’s sponsors. The Greensboro Democrat has for years sought stricter standards for ash.

A Republican leader on environmental issues, Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville, said a bill expanding on McCrory’s ash plan is expected to be introduced within two weeks.

McGrady called the governor’s proposal “pretty liberal” in allowing Duke options on how to close most of its ash ponds, including leaving the ash in place but capped to keep out water. It’s likely the Republican bill would ban new ash ponds, seek quick closure of those identified as high risk and set priorities for dealing with others, he said.

“I think there’s going to be a recognition that we’re not talking about putting it all in landfills and that we can’t use all of it for beneficial reuse,” McGrady said.