News: CJ Exclusives

Coal ash cleanup bill awaits vote in House

House Bill 630 would alter Coal Ash Commission, allow reprocessing of coal ash for construction, and require Duke Energy to ensure clean drinking water near ponds

Image of Belews Creek coal ash pond (Graphic from N.C. Department of Environmental Quality website)
Image of Belews Creek coal ash pond (Graphic from N.C. Department of Environmental Quality website)

A coal ash cleanup bill moved quickly through the state Senate on Tuesday.

House Bill 630 would repeal all provisions in state law related to a Coal Ash Management Commission that was struck down by the N.C. Supreme Court. Instead, coal ash cleanup will come under the supervision of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

It also would require Duke Energy, which owns the coal ash ponds, to provide permanent alternative water supplies for residents surrounding the ponds. In addition, Duke would be required to identify three sites to process coal ash for commercial use, such as by concrete companies.

The bill cleared the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday afternoon, and was later approved by the full Senate by a 44-4 vote. It now goes to the House for a final vote.

“You can trust me to implement this,” DEQ Secretary Don van der Vaart told the Senate Rules Committee.

The move comes after a 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden. Following the spill, the General Assembly created a coal ash commission to oversee the cleanup. However, the Supreme Court said the makeup of the commission violated the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. Gov. Pat McCrory also vetoed a bill earlier this year that modified appointments to the coal ash commission.

Connie Wilson, a lobbyist representing the Carolinas Ready Mix Concrete Association, said the bill is good news for concrete companies, which use refined coal ash as a strengthening agent in their product.

“It is huge for the concrete industry and for lowering the cost of coal ash remediation,” Wilson said.

Some concrete operators said they previously had considered importing coal ash products because they were unable to obtain enough if it locally.

Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy spokesman, said the electricity company supports the “beneficial use” provision of the bill. “One of the problems that we have with our basin ash is that the carbon content is too high in that ash to be able to use it directly in those applications,” Brooks said. “One of the benefits of being able to put beneficiation systems into our areas is that we can reprocess that ash so that it can be used for greater purposes around the state.”

The N.C. League of Conservation Voters was not happy with the Senate action.

“Right now, families in North Carolina can’t drink their own well water; but decision makers in Raleigh would allow a monopoly with over $23 billion in revenue to go two whole years without providing those families with clean water,” said Dan Crawford, a lobbyist for the NCLCV. “When we say these politicians put polluters over people, the N.C. Senate’s coal ash bill is exactly what we’re talking about.”

The bill requires Duke Energy to provide a permanent source of safe drinking water by the fall of 2018 to every residence within a one-half mile radius of a coal ash pond, and to any other areas affected by the ponds.

Brooks said that Duke is concerned about people living near the coal ash sites.

“Even though our science hasn’t indicated a direct impact from our operations, we understand that it’s important for those neighbors to have that peace of mind,” Brooks said. “This bill does provide a means a provide that alternate water supply.”

Brooks said Duke Energy is already providing bottled water to some residents. “Over time we’ll look at how that process will unfold as far as developing municipal water lines or filtration systems as outlined in the law,” Brooks said. “We’re still exploring how that will work in our operations. But it’s something we’re committed to.”

Brooks said the bill gives Duke more flexibility in ways to close the coal ash ponds “to protect the public and to protect pocketbooks as well.”