What Does The NC Senate Want To Do About The State’s Toxic Coal Ash Ponds?

May 15, 2014

A 2012 photo of a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee.
Credit Appalachian Voices / via Creative Commons/Flickr

The first piece of legislation leaders of the North Carolina Senate introduced in this summer’s legislative session looks at Duke Energy’s 33 coal ash ponds across the state.

That means that on Wednesday, their first day in session this year, the senate’s Republican leadership sent a clear signal that it’s a priority for them to resolve the state’s issue of toxic coal ash dumps. What they didn't send was a clear picture of how they want to resolve it.

The ponds, which for decades Duke Energy has used to dispose of ash waste from coal-burning energy plants, became an issue in February, when roughly 39,000 tons of ash drained from a pond near the Virginia-North Carolina line into the Dan River.

In April, Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years before his first bid for governor in 2007, said he wanted to pass a law that required Duke to remove the coal ash within 90 days from four of its ponds -- Riverbend west of Charlotte, Sutton in Wilmington, Asheville and the Dan River plant that spilled ash.

Some Democratic lawmakers, who are in the minority in the state Senate and House of Representatives, and observers, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and NC WARN, criticized the governor’s proposal for three reasons: the proposal resembled one the company had already made, the governor has historical ties with the company, and environmental advocates want Duke to remove all of the coal ash from all of its ponds and lock it in dry locations far from any waterways. (Duke says it could take up to $10 billion and 30 years to remove the ash from all ponds.)

The issue especially got the attention of the senate’s most influential leader, President Pro-Tem Phil Berger of Eden, because the Danville River spill was in the district he represents. On Wednesday, he and Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Apodaca, of Henderson, submitted McCrory’s proposal as their coal ash bill.

The bill, No. 729, sets aside $1.4 million for 19 staff positions at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to oversee coal ash clean up. But how much further do the senators want to require from Duke? Neither senator specified on Wednesday. In an interview, Apodaca said: “This is a good place to start.”