Will lawmakers leave without protecting our water?

From John Woods, mayor of Davidson:

Our North Carolina legislature is struggling to guarantee us clean, safe drinking water.

The State House and Senate can’t agree on coal ash legislation. And now, it’s anybody’s guess if there will be a clean-up bill passed this year at all.

The proposed legislation ensures that only four of the sites in our region where coal ash is stored in pits right beside communities’ drinking water, will be moved and will not continue contaminating ground and surface water. The bill would potentially allow even the most dangerous and leaky sites, including the Marshall Power Plant site, to stay in place, threatening our waterways and our drinking water.

The current version of the bill inserts new language in a clear effort to skirt existing law, as recently confirmed by a Superior Court judge, that requires Duke Energy to take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination at these coal ash sites. This bill protects polluters instead of people, and changes existing law to favor Duke Energy.

The current bill grants Duke Energy’s wish for flexible deadlines by giving the governor-appointed DENR Secretary the authority to extend clean-up deadlines contained in the bill if Duke Energy argues it cannot meet a deadline. This process could easily be abused. Additionally, The Coal Ash Commission has been moved to DENR, the very agency it is supposed to be “checking and balancing.”

The proposed legislation only allows the Coal Ash Commission to approve a closure plan if the benefits to the public’s health, safety, and welfare, the environment, and natural resources outweigh costs. Duke Energy’s 2013 profits were close to three billion dollars. If we are serious about closing coal ash ponds that threaten our citizens’ clean water, we should do so regardless of whether Duke Energy thinks it is too costly.

The proposed bill still allows for the disposal of huge amounts of coal ash as “structural fill” without protections such as liners, leachate collection systems, or permits. Moving coal ash from one unlined hole to another will just lead to more contamination.

About a million people in the Charlotte region depend on water from the Catawba River, downstream from the Marshall Power Plant, which includes one of the largest coal ash storage facilities mere feet from the river itself. The EPA has rated the earthen walls of the Marshall storage ponds in “poor” condition. The Catawba Riverkeeper says the wastewater is seeping through the walls of the unprotected ponds – liquid laden with heavy metals and other toxins.

Despite all this evidence, the legislature hasn’t put the Marshall plant on the top of – or even on – the list of ponds that are to be cleaned up.

If the Senate and the House are at an impasse, maybe nothing will get cleaned up.

I, for one, hope the Senate and House will pull their act together and pass a law that reassures all North Carolinians that their drinking water is safe, rather than bowing to the demands of Duke Energy.