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North Carolina waiting for coal ash bill months after Dan River spill

Coal ash drained out of a pond at a power plant near Eden, North Carolina.
Coal ash drained out of a pond at a power plant near Eden, North Carolina.
John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images

As state legislators in North Carolina continue to debate a budget, legislation to clean up the state's coal ash ponds waits in the wings.

Senior Republican lawmakers spearheaded a bill to deal with the ponds following a spill in February. Subsequent versions of S.B. 729 were criticized by environmental groups for failing to move coal ash ponds away from waterways at 10 of the state's 14 sites in a timely manner and for not forcing Duke Energy to pay for the clean-up.

The final versions of the bill from the state House and Senate conflict. For example, the House version allows for extensions for cleaning up the ponds and negates a court ruling mandating that Duke address pond-related groundwater contamination. The bill is moving into conference committee.

Ash spill prompts action

In February, a corroded metal pipe under Duke's retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden released up to 39,000 tons of coal ash along nearly 70 miles of the river. The spill brought national attention to more than 30 coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

Coal ash ponds contain the byproducts of burning coal for electricity; the wastes contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. In addition to causing groundwater contamination from seepage, the ponds may threaten communities due to dam failures, as happened in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008.

Environmentalists and bill sponsors disagree over provisions

The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters' Debra Rezeli claimed the House version of the bill is, "[a] Band-Aid that allows members to say they addressed the problem without taking real action."

Lawmakers and Duke counter that the clean-up could take 30 years and that the cost should not be addressed by legislation.

"We may very well be getting our energy from a coal-fired plant that's generating ash. That cost ought to be borne by those of us who are using the energy," argued Representative Chuck McGrady, another sponsor.

Legislation delayed by other priorities

The only progress made so far on resolving the different versions of the bill involves the appointment of conference committee members, most of whom are Republican bill sponsors. The legislation is on hold while legislators focus on the budget and initiatives including Medicaid and local tax authority.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated that Duke likely removed all of the coal ash required from the Dan River for now, although most of the spilled ash remains unrecovered. The agency will issue rules on coal ash ponds in December. Lacking forward progress, such ponds remain largely unaddressed in North Carolina.

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