Updated 6:09 p.m.
House lawmakers on Wednesday voted 86-25 to approve a bill that would change the rules for Duke Energy’s cleanups of coal ash across the state. It’s a controversial bill that has drawn the opposition of Gov. Pat McCrory and state regulators.
The statehouse debate comes just a week after state environmental regulators issued what they called "final" risk classifications for Duke Energy's coal ash sites. But the new legislation makes it clear that the question of how and when coal ash will be cleaned up may be as unsettled as ever. And that's despite a 2014 state law that set up a process and deadlines.
The governor and DEQ secretary Donald Van der Vaart sent letters to House and Senate leaders Tuesday opposing Senate Bill 71. They say it would weaken environmental protections and undermine DEQ efforts to carry out the law.
The bill proposes several major changes to the coal ash law:
- It would put aside the DEQ's current risk ratings, instead giving Duke a year to devise new plans. The DEQ rankings had meant that Duke would be required to excavate ash from all its North Carolina plant sites and move it to new, lined landfills.
- It also would reconstitute the Coal Ash Management Commission, which the law set up to oversee cleanups, and change the way members are appointed. McCrory shut down the commission in March after the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it gave the legislature the majority of appointments.
- And it would put into law Duke's proposal to deliver a safe, permanent water supply to plant neighbors. Duke has been providing bottled water to about 400 households amid questions about the quality of their well water. That could mean connecting homes to public water supplies. But it also says if that's too expensive, Duke could provide water filters.
DEQ said last week it wants lawmakers to revise the law to allow it to revisit coal ash site risk ratings in 18 months. That would give Duke time to repair existing coal ash ponds, and could let the utility keep ash where it is permanently. But lawmakers have rejected that idea.
Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center called the bill a "bailout" for Duke Energy. He criticized the speed with which the bill was introduced and debate, so soon after the DEQ's risk ratings came out.
"And now, just days later in a flurry, Duke has sent lobbyists down to the legislature to get the law changed. And lo and behold, the legislature of North Carolina is falling over itself to try to bail out Duke Energy."
Duke Energy says it supports the idea of reviving the Coal Ash Management Commission.
"It has a critical role in the process. That commission actually looks at the decisions or the recommendations made by the state regulator, and very importantly, that commission considers costs to customers," spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said Wednesday.
The utility also wants the DEQ to be able to revisit its risk ratings.
“Duke Energy is moving as quickly as it can to close these ash basins in a safe way for our customers and our communities - as quick as the process will allow,” Sheehan said. “What we support is clarity in the legislation that allows the state to update those rankings based on new information.”
The bill was approved Tuesday by the House Rules Committee and Wednesday morning by the House Appropriations Committee. It passed the House Wednesday afternoon and now goes to the Senate.
If the Senate passes it, Gov. McCrory has promised a veto. In a statement after the House vote Wednesday, McCrory called the bill irresponsible and unconstitutional.
NCLeg.net, text of Senate Bill 71
May 24, 2016, SouthernEnvironment.org, "Breaking: Bill backtracking on state Coal Ash Management Act racing through N.C. Legislature"