RALEIGH — The North Carolina House tentatively voted Wednesday to approve a bill telling Duke Energy how to clean up its coal ash sites, four months after the Dan River spill spurred action for a regulatory remedy to the toxic gray sludge that poured into the river and fills other pits across the state.
The bill cleared two House committees and was debated for more than four hours with 21 amendments on the House floor late Wednesday night, passing 85-27.
It was a floor show of parliamentary maneuvers, accusations of fraud, claims of disingenuousness and commendations between lawmakers who drafted and supported the bill and those who thought it wasn’t good enough.
Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats, tried to make specific coal ash ponds in their respective districts a high priority for clean-up.
But Republicans thwarted those attempts with parliamentary maneuvers to kill a slew of amendments. The bill only explicitly requires the removal of ash from four Duke plants: Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend.
“We are not being fair to the citizens who are in these areas and who have sent members here to advocate to protect them and to protect their children and we need to do that,” said Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, whose amendment to add the Weatherspoon Plant in Robeson County to the high-priority list was tabled and not voted on.
Under both the Senate and House versions, a new state commission would determine the schedule for the remaining sites, through the end of 2029.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, chief proponent of the bill in the House, reiterated several times that the process established by the bill will allow the sites to be vetted by environmental experts and should remain under their purview.
“We’ve got a really good process in place. It will recognize the high hazard sites they will be evaluated,” she said.
Lee County Republican Rep. Mike Stone’s attempt to add coal ash ponds at the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham County, near his home district, was particularly hard-fought. Stone’s amendment first passed by one vote, 56-55. It was reconsidered as legislator changed his vote. Then Republicans tried to unsuccessfully prevent a second vote. It eventually went to a second vote and failed 54-58.
The House version requires high-risk dam owners to have an emergency action plan and rolls back by three months the expiration date for a moratorium on rate changes to Dec. 31, 2016. A measure allowing Duke to draw water out of the ponds to prevent possible groundwater contamination was also added along with a directive to reuse coal ash instead of capping it in ponds.
The plan approved by the Senate last week also orders Duke Energy to close its coal ash dumps at 14 sites by 2029. The House version includes a variance provision, allowing the state to give Duke leeway on the deadline.
The House will take a final vote on the bill Thursday, with an opportunity for more changes. After the House’s final vote, the Senate will review it, and will likely go into a conference committee. The bill would then go to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk for his signature.