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Timing of coal ash bill unknown as North Carolina legislature keeps meeting

The North Carolina General Assembly cannot agree on when to stop meeting, which leaves a coal ash bill in question.
The North Carolina General Assembly cannot agree on when to stop meeting, which leaves a coal ash bill in question.
Avala/Wikimedia Commons

Update: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the budget on Thursday.

While February's spill of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina certainly spurred the state's leaders to action, this failed to translate into legislation before the theoretical end of the General Assembly's "short session." Conference committee members did not compromise on a bill after a disagreement over a house-backed provision to regulate coal ash ponds which lie below the water table.

However, previously mentioned uncertainties about addressing coal ash in future 2014 legislative meetings may be more complicated than previously thought.

House and Senate members still disagree over when to formally adjourn for the year. While the Senate's adjournment resolution calls for leaving until mid-month to consider vetoes from Governor Pat McCrory, the House's adjournment resolutions allow topics such as coal ash to be discussed during this mid-month meeting. McCrory previously stated that he will sign the state's budget bill, which prompted Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's spokesperson to state that the Senate will adjourn until November; this is the time the Senate chose for dealing with coal ash. The governor also noted that his executive order on coal ash will manage the situation until November.

Not all Senators are united: Neal Hunt stated that coal ash would likely come up again next week. However, a Tuesday "skeleton session" of five senators and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest on did not consider the House adjournment resolutions at all. The second-most senior member of the House, Skip Stam, wants to work on coal ash next week in keeping with his chamber's resolution despite the Senate's refusal.

The result of this stand-off could be no-vote skeleton sessions every four days in order to fulfill state constitutional obligations, and Stam says House members should be ready for a return on August 14.

There are a number of odd results from this situation. No enforcement provision exists in North Carolina's constitution if legislators fail to meet during a session, though a Burlington Times-News editorial cites a former legislative counsel as stating that a court could force these meetings. The same editorial notes that the governor could veto a bill to force legislators back into a full session, and that political action committee donations to legislators' election campaigns cannot occur in session. This would include some contributions from Duke Energy, the owner of the state's coal ash ponds.

The outcry on this stalemate comes from multiple corners, including the editorial board of the Fayetteville Observer, which criticizes the endlessness of the session despite its failure to finish a coal ash bill. Environmental groups have also lambasted the legislature's inaction. The Southern Environmental Law Center's Frank Holleman commented, "The Senate passed a weak bill, the House passed a worse bill, and the legislature passed no bill. The only winner in this sorry spectacle is Duke Energy’s pollution, and the losers are the people of North Carolina and its clean water.”

Meanwhile, a potential coal ash bill could dangle over the heads of North Carolina residents until after the November elections. This would draw close the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's release of coal ash pond regulations in mid-December.