Will Lawmakers Come Up With A New Coal Ash Bill?

Jun 17, 2016

Time may be running out for North Carolina lawmakers to reach a compromise on how to update the state's coal ash cleanup law. That's according to the chief sponsor of a bill that Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed last week.

The McCrory administration and the General Assembly have been in a tug-of-war for the past month over revising the rules for coal ash cleanups at Duke Energy's plants around the state. Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill last month that would have given Duke more time and flexibility on cleanups. But the governor vetoed it June 6.

Rather than override the veto - and risk a promised court challenge by the governor - legislators planned to rewrite the bill.

Its main backer, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), had said Monday he hoped to have a new bill by the end of this week. But on Friday, he said he's still negotiating with regulators, the governor and fellow lawmakers, and he's not sure what will happen.

In an interview Monday, McGrady acknowledge that pulling together a bill would be difficult. “I'm still working hard to try to figure out what will satisfy all the different parties' views of what can be done and on what timetable,” McGrady said.

Lawmakers from both houses are busy haggling over the state budget, which could leave little time for the coal ash debate or other contentious issues before the session ends.

"I don’t know when the session will be over, and I don’t know how quickly we can bring all the people together and it if I can get them all on the same page,” McGrady said .

McGrady says cleanups are a priority, and so is making sure neighbors of coal ash sites get clean water. The DEQ and the governor agree, but they object to the original bill's plan to revive a coal ash oversight commission.

State environmental regulators issued final risk ratings for Duke's coal ash ponds on May 18, but said they wanted the law changed so they could revisit those rankings later. The ratings are important: They determine whether Duke must move ash to new, lined landfills, or whether it can leave ash where it is, by draining and covering existing ash ponds.  

N.C. Environmental Secretary Donald van der Vaart said the DEQ hopes lawmakers would change the law so the ratings could be revisited in 18 months. That would give Duke Energy time to do some repairs and devise new plans, what he called "a path" for some sites to be reclassified as low priority. That would allow the utility to leave coal ash where it is.   

Lawmakers didn't give the DEQ what it wanted, but instead overwhelmingly approved a bill that would have given Duke more time and flexibility in dealing with ash - the toxic byproduct from burning coal for electricity. But the bill also included reviving the oversight commission, which McCrory didn't like.

Duke says it needs some kind of relief. The company said last month it can’t finish cleanups at some sites by the deadlines set in the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. It wants the option to leave ash in place at some plants, which would speed cleanups and could save rate payers billions of dollars.

A spokeswoman said Friday Duke hopes any compromise will give it more options.