North Carolina Lawmakers Pass Coal Ash Bill, Set Loose Timeline For Cleanup

CREDIT: flickr/Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.

Coal ash, North Carolina, February 2014.

On Wednesday, North Carolina passed the Coal Ash Management Act just days before the the Republican-led Legislature end their session. Coal ash became a major political issue in February when a pipe connected to a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant waste pond collapsed, coating 70 miles of the Dan River in 39,000 tons of toxic sludge. There are 32 other coal ash dumps across the state containing over 100 million tons of coal ash that represent various levels of environmental risk. The measure still needs to be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory before becoming law.

North Carolina lawmakers said they are one of the first states to pass a sweeping bill in an effort to confront this hazardous environmental issue, but many environmental groups said the bill offers only a weak remedy and kowtows to Duke Energy’s demands.

“It may not be perfect, but it is a solid step forward,” said state Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood).

With last minute changes threatening to derail the bill, the compromised legislation allows so-called low risk dumps to be capped with plastic sheeting and dirt while also directing Duke Energy to move low-lying dumps if there is significant risk of contaminating groundwater. Duke Energy also has five years to excavate ash at four of its 14 coal-fired power plants considered to be at the highest risk. What to do at the remaining dumps will be determined by a new commission set up under the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Under the measure Duke will close its 33 North Carolina ponds by 2029, although it can ask for extensions from the new commission.

North Carolina’s Superior Court ruled earlier this year that the state can require “immediate action” to clean up sources of groundwater contamination — which has been found at all of of Duke’s N.C. coal-fired power plants. This bill reverses that decision and puts the decision-making authority into the hands of the new commission which can first ask for contamination studies before requesting cleanup measures.

“Allowing coal ash to be left in unlined, leaking pits across North Carolina with documented groundwater contamination at each site is not a cleanup plan nor does it protect the people of North Carolina,” said the Southern Environmental Law Center (SECL) in a statement. “Many sites across the country where coal ash has been covered up or ‘capped’ in place continue to experience high levels of toxic pollution. Covering up coal ash and calling sites ‘closed’ does not stop or clean up pollution.”

According to the Sierra Club, every year the U.S. produces 140 million tons of coal ash pollution, the toxic by-product that is left over after the coal is burned. The ash is put in surface waste ponds and open-air pits abutting some 1,100 power plants across the country. Coal ash contains trace metals such as arsenic and selenium that can be toxic in high concentrations.

“Without this legislation, coal ash would have remained essentially unregulated, an untenable position for North Carolina residents,” said Molly Diggins, Sierra Club’s state director. “Still, today’s action does not go far enough to prevent more contamination of our treasured water resources.”