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Contentious Debate, Unanimous Vote For Coal Ash Bill In NC Senate

Mark Rumsey

The North Carolina Senate tentatively approved a bill last night that would determine what happens to the coal ash ponds at all 14 of Duke Energy’s coal plants in the state. The debate was far more rancorous than the final vote.

The ponds at four plants, Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend in Gaston County, take top priority in the bill. Duke Energy would have five years to bury their coal ash in lined landfills at least a football field away from rivers and lakes. Senators wanted to add their local coal plants to that list.

Orange County Democrat Valerie Foushee proposed an amendment adding the Cape Fear plant. Democrats Gene McLaurin and Jeff Jackson soon followed, looking to add the Buck plant in Rowan County and the Marshall plant in Catawba, respectively.

Their amendments were all defeated and came with a tongue-lashing from Republican bill sponsor Tom Apodaca.

“I was so hoping, and I guess I was just dreaming, that we wouldn’t politicize this,” Apodaca said.

Apodaca argued senators should allow state regulators and a politically-appointed commission to prioritize the other 10 coal ash ponds. The bill calls for them to create three categories—high, medium, and low risk.

“I think everyone of us feel our project should be cleaned up immediately,” Apodaca said. “But we just can’t clean every one of them up immediately. It’s just not possible. So, we must be prudent, and go out to the ones that have to be cleaned and are the most dangerous first.”

Duke Energy would have five years to close high risk ponds, and 10 and 15 years to close medium and low risk. For low risk, the company could simply drain the water and cover the ponds. Senators wanted their plants on the priority list, to make sure they get cleaned up.

“Can you explain other than the fact that the governor had these in his bill, what distinguishes these four from the 10 [plants not on the list]?” Wake County Democrat Josh Stein asked Apodaca.

“No you’d have to talk to the governor,” Apodaca replied.

The four plants were designated by Duke Energy for closure in March, and made their way into a plan by Governor Pat McCrory, and then into this Senate bill.

Despite the arguments and objections from environmental groups, the Senate passed the coal ash bill unanimously. It is scheduled to receive a final vote today.