Coal Ash, Budget Dominate Opening Day

RALEIGH — The state would set a deadline for Duke Energy to submit cleanup plans for four major North Carolina coal ash sites, including the Sutton Power Plant in New Hanover County, under a proposal developed by the Gov. Pat McCrory and introduced yesterday on the opening day of the legislative short session.

Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger and Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, introduced the bill Wednesday within minutes of the opening of the session. Senate Bill 729 — will serve as the start of coal ash legislation promised by both the governor and the legislative leaders in the wake of public outcry over a massive spill in early February at a decommissioned Duke Energy coal-fired plant near Eden.


Gov. Pat McCrory

The bill lays out a statement of principles from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources acknowledging “six decades” of failure to address coal ash waste and committing to “conversion and closure” of coal ash ponds for the health and safety of the public.

It gives Duke Energy 60 days to come up with closure plans for coal ash ponds at the company’s Dan River, Asheville and Riverbend plants. It gives the company 90 days to develop a plan for Sutton. Company officials said last month that the Sutton site is more complicated and will require more study. The ponds at the site sit on the edge of Sutton Lake, a popular fishing and recreation area.

For all of the closure plans the McCrory’s bill stipulates that they “shall include detailed provisions that ensure all ash in the impoundments will be moved to a lined structural fill, a lined landfill, or an alternative disposition approved by [DENR]”

At opening-day press conferences both McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis said coal ash legislation would be a top priority for the session. Tillis said the bill is likely to change as legislators incorporate their ideas into it.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a former national president of the Sierra Club and one of three House legislators working with senate leaders on the legislative plan, said there is a growing sense that a deal can be struck. He said the N.C. House team has forwarded a set of guidelines with the hope they’ll be incorporated into the Senate’s proposal.

McGrady said the introduction of the governor’s plan was a sign of greater collaboration after a rough start after McCrory caught legislators who were working on a plan off guard with his proposal.


Rep. Chuck McGrady

“We agree that we need to close the active coal ash ponds. We need to de-water them and then we need to go through a remediation process and that’s our goal for the short session,” McGrady said.

He called the bill a first step and said given the time constraints the legislature is not likely to tackle what to do with all the sites in the long-term beyond setting up a monitoring program. That and the thorny issue of what costs Duke Energy might pass on to ratepayers will probably have to wait until next year’s longer session.

McGrady said there will be differences that will have to be worked out. He said he would like to see the criteria for determining what to do at each site spelled out.

Democrats have said they’ll introduce their own plan for the short session requiring cleanup at all the sites and preventing the company from passing the costs on to ratepayers.

Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, said it’s clear that when it comes to Sutton any solution will require removal of the ash from the ponds.

“The most reasonable and safest option there is to relocate the coal ash,” Catlin said. But even though the amount of ash at Sutton is not of large compared to the 13 other sites around the state, finding a lined landfill for the ash won’t be easy.

Catlin said he looked at the possibility using the county landfill and the size of the problem was quickly evident. “It was going to take up 70 of the 90 acres and that was at 270 feet high,” he said. “There’s no way it can go there, so the next question is where does it go?”

Catlin said he’s asked that DENR better spell out the standards for lined landfills for coal ash.

The initial coal ash bill also appropriates $1.4 million to fund 19 positions at DENR and new equipment for a statewide coal ash monitoring program.

McCrory’s 150-page budget adjustment proposal also includes roughly the same funds for the new monitoring program. At the same time the budget proposal trims positions elsewhere leaving DENR for a net gain of eight full-time positions.

McCrory Budget

Legislators get to work today in finance and appropriation committee hearings on adjustments to the state budget. McCrory’s $21 billion budget proposal that was released yesterday uses a combination of savings, fund balances and reversions from state agencies to fill an expected $445 million deficit.

While it includes more money for pay raises for teachers and state employees, McCrory’s budget also continues to trim back on programs. The proposal would cut $1.9 million for the wave energy research program at UNC’s Coastal Study Institute.

The governor also plans to ask for a special provision for $6.9 million in water resources projects including “dredging, navigation, flood control, beach protection, and stream restoration.” The money would be used to leverage $9 million in federal funds according to a budget summary.

DENR is one of the few departments in the state to see an increase. It receives 2 percent budget increase to cover raises and new positions for coal ash monitoring and shale gas regulation.

The governor’s proposal also includes:

  • $1.3 million in recurring funding for aquatic weed control to deal with the hydrilla outbreak at Lake Waccamaw State Park in Columbus County
  • Shifting three more positions to receipts supported at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and calls for a re-evaluation of shellfish growing area sampling and shoreline surveys in the Division of Water infrastructure
  • Elimination of two more positions in the state Division of Water Resources and a position in the stormwater permitting section of the N.C. Division of Energy, Materials and Land Resources
  • $500,000 to support the recommendations of the Oregon Inlet Land Acquisition Task Force
  • A $3 million challenge grant for upgrades and repairs to the USS North Carolina and roughly $400,000 in restored funding for Tyron Palace.

 

About the Author

Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist in Chapel Hill. In addition to Coastal Review Online, he covers the legislature and state government for Carolina Public Press. He can be reached at kmr@rossalmanac.com