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N.C. bill would order closure of coal ash pits within 15 years

Published On: Jun 16 2014 08:53:26 AM EDT
Duke Energy
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — -

A bill backed by key North Carolina lawmakers would require Duke Energy to close all of its coal ash dumps across the state within 15 years, with much of the toxic material going into lined landfills.

A copy of the proposed legislation distributed Sunday to members of the state Senate was obtained by the Associated Press. It orders the nation's largest electricity company to stop pumping its ash into water-filled pits by the end of 2019. Duke's more than 100 million tons of existing ash would either have to be dug up and removed or sealed in place to stop contaminating groundwater.

The legislation, proposed by Senate leader Phil Berger and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, comes four months after a massive spill at a Duke plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

Berger, R-Rockingham, lives in Eden. Apodaca, R-Henderson, has large coal ash pits in his home district near Asheville.

"We're dealing with the high-risk ponds right away," Apodaca said Sunday. "We've set up a plan to move forward, so we get out of the ash business totally with 15 years. That's total elimination of ash ponds or cap and seal."

A Senate committee is set to debate the measure Monday.

The Senate proposal would significantly alter an earlier plan put forward by Gov. Pat McCrory, which lacked firm closure deadlines and left it largely up to the discretion of regulators at the state environmental agency to decide how the coal ash pits would be closed. The new bill would create a nine-member commission to oversee that process, with the legislature appointing a majority of the members.

The bill would also require Duke to pay a fee to cover the cost of adding 29 new state employees to assist the commission and oversee environmental compliance at the dumps.

Duke has 33 unlined ash pits at 14 coal-fired power plants across the state, all of which state environmental officials say are contaminating groundwater and threatening nearby rivers and lakes. Coal ash contains numerous toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium, chromium, beryllium, thallium, mercury, cadmium and lead.

The Senate bill initiates a process in which each of the 33 pits will be assessed and assigned a level of risk to people and the environment. Those deemed to be of the highest risk would be closed within five years, while those of intermediate risk would have to be closed no later than 2024.

Duke would have two options for disposing of the ash: either moving it to lined landfills licensed to handle hazardous waste, or digging up the ash and constructing a lined landfill at the site of the former ash pond. Duke could also provide for mixing into concrete and other building products. No ash could be stored within 300 feet of a body of water, and the company would be required to monitor groundwater for contamination.

For dumps assigned the lowest level of risk, Duke would be allowed to propose capping the existing ash pit with liner and covering it with dirt. However, the company would be required to show leaving the ash in place under that option would no longer threaten the environment.

Once adopted by the Senate, the bill would head to the state House. If approved there, the measure would head to the desk of McCrory, who worked for Duke more than 28 years before becoming governor.

Duke has already said it intends to close its pits and remove the ash at four plants, located near Asheville, near Charlotte, near Wilmington, and the one in Eden where the spill occurred. At its remaining sites, the company wants to have the flexibility to consider options including the cap-in-place proposal.

Environmentalists worry that leaving the ash in place would allow for the continued contamination of groundwater near the plants.

Duke has said it could take decades and cost up to $10 billion if it is forced to remove its ash at all 33 sites, with the company's ratepayers footing most of the bill. The Senate proposal bars Duke from seeking such a rate hike through January 2015, but after that the company would be free to petition the North Carolina Utilities Commission for an increase.

Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the Senate bill still leaves far too much to the discretion of state environmental regulators who failed for years to address the threat posed by Duke's dumps. Most concerning, he said, the proposal would allow Duke to dispose of up to 100,000 tons of ash - more than twice the amount that spilled into the Dan River - into unlined "structural fills" such as for roadway construction.

"This bill falls far short of protecting North Carolina's communities and clean water from coal ash," Holleman said. "What North Carolina needs is a straightforward requirement that Duke Energy clean up its dangerous and polluting unlined, aging coal ash pits."