Letter to N.C. leaders: Fix 3 flaws in coal ash bill

From a letter Friday from The Southern Environmental Law Center and several groups to N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis:

Dear Senator Berger and Speaker Tillis:

Following the Dan River coal ash spill in February, members of the legislature promised to provide a robust solution to North Carolina’s coal ash problems. Instead, the current legislation inexplicably attempts to weaken our State’s existing groundwater protection laws in favor of Duke Energy while allowing Duke to continue polluting State waters and putting our communities at risk.

There are three fundamental problems with the bill that must be corrected in order to protect North Carolina’s communities and drinking water:

• The bill allows Duke Energy to continue contaminating public waters by leaving its coal ash in unlined pits throughout North Carolina. Senate Bill 729 fails to include a common sense requirement to separate coal ash from our public waters. Thus, at any or all of the ten sites not specifically listed for cleanup, the bill would allow the coal ash to remain in Duke Energy’s unlined pits that are contaminating groundwater now and will continue to do so in the future. As a result, S729 leaves most citizens and communities living near and downstream of coal ash pits with no assurance that the coal ash threatening their drinking water and waterways will be removed or safely stored.

• The bill seeks to undermine existing protections. All of Duke Energy’s coal ash disposal sites pollute groundwater, and existing law in North Carolina requires “immediate action to eliminate the source of contamination” at these sites. A state court recently confirmed that this requirement means what it says. But the House inserted language into the bill that is a clear effort to gut that requirement. After the Dan River spill and a federal grand jury investigation of Duke’s activities this year, North Carolina should be enforcing the law against Duke Energy, not attempting to weaken existing law at the expense of our communities and public waters.

• The bill gives Duke Energy amnesty for its leaking coal ash dams. Rather than requiring Duke to fix the dams, S729 would let the N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources shield Duke by authorizing uncontrolled discharges of contaminated wastewater into our rivers and lakes. It is past time for Duke to clean up its leaking coal ash dams.

We urge the legislature to address these three main problems with the bill. We appreciate you requiring Duke Energy to clean up the four coal ash sites it has said it will clean up and you putting a firm end date to the addition of wet coal ash into coal ash lagoons. However, if these problems are not addressed by the legislature, then S729 cannot achieve your stated goal of protecting North Carolinians from ongoing contamination of our public waters.

In short, the bill as written actually weakens North Carolina’s protections against coal ash pollution, which is alarming given the recent disaster at the Dan River facility and frequent assurances that this bill would provide strong protections for our citizens. It is not too late to make good on those promises.