Weak coal ash bill stalls, highlights need for real action

by Brian Johnson

August 11, 2014

The North Carolina legislature's weak bill on coal ash has stalled, putting on hold legislation that would have failed to protect residents from the dangers of coal ash. While the bill could yet pass with some additional provisions, the turn of events highlights the need for real government action following Duke Energys disastrous coal ash spill in February. What happened The situation began last Saturday under the bills standing committee. Made up of legislators from both the House and the Senate, the committee was tasked with reconciling any differences between the two chambers versions of the bill. Then news that negotiations had broken down, threatening to strand the bill for the current legislative session. Its not a bad break, as the bills before the committee were truly weak. For example, Greenpeace and other environmental groups had called for the full clearing out of all 14 of Duke Energys coal ash sites in North Carolina, relocating the ash to properly lined pits away from water and vulnerable communities. The House and the Senate bills, however, required such measures for only 4 of Dukes sites, leaving the remaining dumps open to simply being drained and capped over. The bills added insult to injury by allowing Duke to charge customers for clean-up costs, estimated to reach as high as $10 billion. 14 hours later, Governor Pat McCrory vowed action on coal ash with or without legislation, issuing an executive order he claimed would begin to address the problem. Unfortunately, the order only reiterates the status quo, calling for the enforcement of laws already in place. Hardly an executive move from McCrory, a former Duke employee of 28 years. [caption id="attachment_28343" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Charlotte activists deliver a mock check from Duke Energy to NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who was key in pushing through the weak coal ash bill. Charlotte activists deliver a mock check from Duke Energy to NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who was key in pushing through the weak coal ash bill.[/caption] House and Senate members have blamed each other for the stalled bill. A center issue seems to be what defines low-priority dumps, or coal ash sites that would be deemed the lowest risk to the environment. WRAL reported that House members Ruth Samuelson, Chuck McGrady and Rick Glazier pushed for a provision that would prohibit dumps near surface waters from receiving the low-risk label. McGrady described the issue as specifically surrounding groundwater protection; House members rightly suggested that cap-in-place methods could not protect groundwater at dump sites at or below the water table. Whats really at stake Even with a groundwater provision, the fact remains that the only proper way to clean up Dukes coal ash problem is to fully excavate each site, move the ash to remote lined pits, and make Duke pay for it. The bills before the standing committee fell woefully short of those criteria. Perhaps that truth was running though the minds of House members as they attempted to add the provision. What is clear is that the same politicians who voted for the bill werent able to see it through. No bill was better than a weak bill, said McGrady. Weak was certainly the word from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, who noted Duke Energys corrupting influence in the bills formulation. The bills top proponents included Senators Phil Berger and Tom Apodaca and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis--all major beneficiaries of political contributions from Duke. After the House bill was passed, Greenpeace and activists delivered a mock check from the company to Tillis office. Tillis closed his doors and shortly after attempted to distance himself from Duke. Duke hasnt distanced itself from politicians. The company unabashedly hung around the standing committee as it tried to finalize the bill. "We have provided technical information and answered questions as requested by legislators, a Duke spokesman said. Following the bills stranding, Duke CEO Lynn Good wrote that ...we continue to advance the comprehensive plan we proposed last March. That plan proposes similarly weak measures to the stalled bills. If and when the coal ash bill will pass remains unclear. The final bill could yet be passed this month, or reconsidered when the legislature reconvenes in November. The decision before the legislature, however, remains clear: Whether to create a bill that protects people from coal ash pollution, or protects Duke from its coal ash problem. Duke is certainly on a path to afford the right solution. The company just reported an 80% rise in profits.  
Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

Brian is a campaigner with Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Team. Follow him @BFWJohnson.

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