Senate panel endorses plan to close ash ponds

The N.C. Senate’s agriculture and environment committee endorsed a measure Tuesday to close Duke Energy’s 33 coal ash ponds in the state despite Duke’s plea that the 15-year timeline might be too short.

The committee gave the bill a favorable report on a unanimous voice vote. It goes to the Senate finance committee on Wednesday and, if favorable there, to appropriations on Thursday.

George Everett, Duke’s environmental and legislative affairs director, warned the agriculture committee that Duke might not be able to close all its ponds by the three deadlines – 2019, 2024 and 2029 – that the bill sets.

He asked that legislators revisit the timelines once hazard ratings have been applied to the ponds, due in August 2015, and Duke has submitted individual pond closure plans.

“We just want to be sure those dates are achievable,” Everett said.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, the Hendersonville Republican guiding the legislation, stood by the deadlines.

“I have found in my life that I get more things done when I have a tight timeline,” he said. “I think you probably have four sites that you could start clearing out today.”

The bill requires that ash be removed from ponds at four power plants regarded as especially hazardous because of their proximity to water: Riverbend, west of Charlotte; Dan River, where ash spilled in February; Asheville; and Sutton in Wilmington.

Other ponds would be closed according to their risk. The legislation creates a new, nine-member Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the hazard ratings and closure plans for each pond.

Ash in low-risk ponds could be drained of water and capped, but stay in place. Higher-risk ponds could be converted to lined landfills, with the ash removed temporarily and then replaced or taken to landfills elsewhere.

Everett told the committee it’s hard to know how long it will take for individual pond closure plans to be reviewed and come before public hearings, and for Duke to then get state permits and move the ash.

“It’s going to take orderly, thoughtful engineering expertise to get there, and I want you to know we’re committed to it,” he said.

Duke has retired seven of its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. All but three units at the operating plants have converted from wet ash, in which the material is sluiced into open ponds, to dry ash that can be placed in landfills.

The Senate legislation bans new ash ponds. It gives power plants four to five years to convert to dry-ash handling.

Environmentalists say the measure lacks clear standards in applying the hazard ratings and in assuring that ash is isolated from water that it can contaminate. The measure leaves unclear whether Duke’s customers or the utility’s profits should bear the cost of closing the ponds.

A companion bill is before the House environment committee, which is scheduled to meet Thursday.