The state House and Senate on Tuesday both approved a revised bill that would update the 2014 law governing coal ash cleanups at Duke Energy's North Carolina plants. That sets up a battle with Gov. Pat McCrory, who calls the bill unnecessary and irresponsible and vows a veto.
The House voted 84-25 Tuesday afternoon to agree with revisions requested by the Senate, which had put off a vote on the bill last week. Later Tuesday, the Senate passed it and sent it on to the governor.
The main change from an earlier version of the bill is an expansion in the number of households near coal ash sites eligible for alternate water supplies.
McCrory opposes the bill's plan to revive the independent Coal Ash Management Commission, which would oversee cleanups. In a statement last week, he said the bill was "a blatant attempt to bypass state regulators and seek more favorable treatment from an unaccountable and unneeded bureaucracy that further delays the cleanup process.”
McCrory shut down the original coal ash commission earlier this year after the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), the bill's main sponsor, said General Assembly lawyers assure him the revised commission is constitutional.
The bill also would give Duke Energy more time to come up with plans for closing its 33 North Carolina coal ash storage basins at 14 current and former coal plants. It would set aside risk ratings of Duke's coal ash sites announced two weeks ago by the state Department of Environmental Quality. Those ratings require Duke to remove ash at all the sites, but revisions in the bill would reopen the classification process and let Duke make a pitch to keep ash where it as at many sites.
Duke said last week it can't meet cleanup deadlines in the law for many of its coal ash sites.
Environmentalists quickly criticized the General Assembly vote. Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center called it a "political bailout of Duke Energy."
"At Duke's bidding, the legislature is changing the law and ignoring the people of North Carolina so politicians can find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook for getting its toxic coal ash out of leaking, unlined pits sitting in our groundwater and polluting our rivers, lakes and drinking water sources," Holleman said in a statement.
Dustin Chicurel-Bayard of the North Carolina Sierra Club applauded the requirement for Duke to provide a safe, permanent water supply to plant neighbors.
But, he added, "Unfortunately, the process and timeline by which Duke Energy’s coal ash will be cleaned up just became less certain. The reopening of the coal ash pit classification process provides Duke with the opportunity to seek a downgrading of the classifications and could lead to delays of already long-overdue cleanups.”