RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers are pressing for firm deadlines to be added to legislation aimed at stopping pollution leaking from Duke Energy’s unlined coal ash dumps.
Members of a state Senate committee reviewing Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan on Thursday questioned why it doesn’t include a timetable. They want a specific schedule setting out how long the company has to clean out its dumps at four power plants, including the site of a February spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. Coal ash contains numerous toxic chemicals, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
“The public, the people we represent, the people we serve here in the legislature across North Carolina, they want to see some specific timetables,” said Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond.
McCrory’s proposal requires Duke to submit closure plans for the four sites, but leaves it to the discretion of state environmental officials to set how long the company has to accomplish the task. The governor’s bill would allow Duke to propose alternatives for its remaining 10 sites that include leaving the ash in place, covered with plastic sheeting and a layer of soil.
Before becoming governor, McCrory, a Republican, retired from Duke after working at the company more than 28 years.
Environmental groups are pushing for lawmakers to require Duke to dig up all of its ash from unlined pits near rivers and lakes and move it to lined landfills licensed to handle hazardous waste.
State officials acknowledge that all of Duke’s unlined dumps are currently contaminating groundwater. The governor’s proposal prioritizes four facilities where Duke has already signaled it plans to remove its ash — Dan River in Eden, Riverbend near Charlotte, Sutton near Wilmington, and the company’s Asheville plant.
“Everybody knows (these) are probably the worst in the state right now,” said Tom Reeder, the state’s director of water resources.
A Duke executive previously told legislators in April it would take decades and could cost as much as $10 billion if it was required to move all of its ash to lined landfills, with the utility’s ratepayers footing most of the bill.
The legislation allows the state to keep secret portions of the emergency action plans Duke is required to submit to regulators laying out the potential impact of a dam failure at one of its dumps. Duke has previously said the public release of such information would endanger the security of its facilities.
The governor’s bill would also shorten the time period during which a dump owner would be required to notify the public of a sizable spill, from 48 hours to 24 hours.
Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said that is still too long.
“I can’t conceive of it taking that long,” he said. “I don’t know why they are given that sort of cushion. I think it should change.”
The committee did not amend or vote on the Republican-backed bill Thursday.
A competing bill introduced by Democrats would prohibit Duke from disposing of coal ash in unlined waste pits after August and would set firm deadlines for the company to close all of its waste dumps scattered across the state. The bill would also forbid Duke from passing the costs of cleaning up its coal ash dumps on to its electricity customers.
“Any good plan must have a timetable, with fixed dates to close out all of the ash ponds,” Cassie Gavin, the governmental affairs director for the North Carolina Sierra Club, told the lawmakers. “Moving the coal ash from unlined pits to lined storage will greatly reduce water contamination.”