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Local News

Lawmakers Grilled On Response To Coal Ash Spill

Jeff Wilhelm
Charlotte Observer

A community meeting on coal ash stored at Mountain Island Lake turned into a grilling Monday of state legislators over their response to Duke Energy’s spill on the Dan River last month.

The group We Love Mountain Island Lake hosted the panel discussion including environmental advocates, Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins, Gaston County Republican Rep. John Torbett and Mecklenburg Democrat Rep. Rodney Moore. About 75 people attended.

But as a line formed to ask questions, most were aimed at the two lawmakers. Their responses grew more pointed as the questions did.

“We’re going to be the General Assembly that fixes this problem after all these years,” Torbett finally said after being pressed on how the legislature would respond to the spill.

Moore added that he would support a measure to overturn 2011 legislation that limits state-level environmental rules to being no more stringent than federal rules. The Environmental Protection Agency is due to release the first federal rules on coal ash in December.

“What I pledge to you is that we are going to do everything possible to put legislation in place so hopefully this (spill) will never take place in this community,” he said. “But if it does, we will hold the perpetrators responsible.”

Duke Energy has ash ponds at four power plants lining the Catawba River, including a recently retired plant named Riverbend that dates to 1929. The company has not yet submitted a plan for closing its two ash ponds, which hold 2.7 million tons of ash. Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s main drinking water source, is a reservoir on the Catawba River.

Duke has said it will consider two options: drain water from the ponds, but leave the ash in place and cover it with a waterproof cap; or haul the ash to a lined landfill.

The second option is more expensive. South Carolina’s Santee Cooper utility expects to spend $250 million to clean ash out of its seven ponds. Duke has 30 ash ponds apart from the two at Riverbend.

It’s unclear how the Feb. 2 ash spill on the Dan River will change Duke’s thinking. Duke has said it is re-evaluating its ash management in light of the spill. Gov. Pat McCrory has asked Duke to outline its plans for the ash ponds by Saturday.

The Riverbend dams are among 45 nationwide that the EPA has deemed “high-hazard” for the damage they would cause if they fail. Riverbend is about 3 miles upstream of Charlotte’s drinking-water intake.

Duke says the 80-foot-high earthen dams that impound the ponds are safe. A 2009 consultant’s inspection judged them “satisfactory.”

The legislative Environmental Review Commission, which next meets on Wednesday, is mulling measures to address the Dan River spill during the session that begins in May.

Torbett toured Riverbend last week and said he’s most concerned about draining water from its ponds to make any breach of the dams less likely.

“We’re going to work within the law” as the state investigates the Dan spill, he said. “Duke is a private company that is entitled to due process.”