This week the General Assembly did not move any environmental bills forward that we have been monitoring because House and Senate leaders were busy hashing out the budget in contentious private meetings. That said, the coal ash bill and other bills we are following could move quickly next week as the legislature races to end the short session.
Status of the Coal Ash Bill
The coal ash bill – S 729 “Coal Ash Management Act of 2014” – was on the Senate calendar several days in a row this week, but was finally moved to Monday’s calendar for a vote of concurrence. Senator Apodaca (R – Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania), who is taking the lead on the coal ash bill in the Senate, has said that the Senate will vote not to concur on the bill because changes are needed. Specifically, he noted that he would like changes to:
1) the variance procedure added by the House that would allow the Secretary of DENR to grant an extension to deadlines in the bill; and
2) the agency location and makeup of the Coal Ash Management Commission.
Procedurally, after the Senate votes to not concur – the coal ash bill will go to conference – which means that House and Senate leaders will appoint legislator conferees who will meet in private to iron out differences and come up with a final bill.
A major environmental concern remaining in regards to the coal ash bill is the lack of clear standards to ensure that all closure methods are protective of groundwater near coal ash sites. All 33 coal ash ponds at 14 coal plants in North Carolina are leaking toxic heavy metals into the groundwater. Without clear guidelines, this bill could allow coal ash at 10 of these plant sites to stay in place, continuing to pollute our groundwater, lakes, and rivers.
Opportunity for Action:
Please contact Senator Apodaca, who will surely be on the coal ash bill conference committee, and ask him to add clear standards to the bill to ensure that any closure method allowed is protective of groundwater near coal ash sites.
What’s in the coal ash legislation that moves us forward? What is lacking?
Given the complexity of the coal ash bill – you may be interested in a broader picture of what the coal ash bill – S 729 – will do. Certain provisions in the House and Senate versions of the coal ash bill are not in contention and so will very likely be part of the final bill. These include the following provisions sought by the Sierra Club and its coalition partners:
- Bring coal ash under the state’s current solid waste management laws:
- The legislation makes wet coal ash subject to North Carolina’s fairly stringent construction, monitoring and siting standards for solid waste.
- Address future management of wet ash:
- The legislation requires wet coal ash disposal to be phased out entirely by the end of 2019. The coal ash bill will prohibit construction of new or the expansion of wet coal ash ponds beginning in August 2014. Then, by October 2014 no additional coal ash will be allowed to be disposed of in wet coal ash ponds at retired plants.
- By the end of 2018 no stormwater may enter the coal ash ponds at retired plants and all active coal ash plants must convert to dry fly ash handling only. By the end of 2019, no stormwater may be discharged into coal ash ponds at active coal plants and active coal plants must convert to dry bottom ash handling only.
- Set a timeline and fixed date to close out all 33 wet coal ash ponds
- The legislation sets clear deadlines for closing out all 33 coal ash ponds. Four coal ash plant sites are identified for clean closure (excavation of ash and putting ash into lined storage. The remaining 10 sites would be categorized by the new Coal Ash Management Commission and put into either high, intermediate or low risk category based on a list of factors. High and intermediate categorization would require excavation of ash and putting ash into lined storage. Low risk sites would be allowed to be capped in place. [Note: Although groundwater monitoring and financial assurance would be required, the closure standards for capping in place as currently in the bill do not adequately protect groundwater.]
- Adequately regulate structural fill:
- The legislation requires construction, siting and monitoring standards for large structural fill projects. Also, a one year moratorium on smaller structural fill projects is established while standards are studied by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
- Close the highest risk sites first:
- Clean closure, with removal of coal ash, from the four sites listed in the legislation: Dan River – Eden, Riverbend – Charlotte, Sutton – Wilmington and Asheville. [Note that these sites are all in litigation, and that Duke Energy has already publicly committed to cleaning them up.]
- Removal of a loophole in 2013 legislation that allows Duke Energy to extend the compliance boundary by acquiring additional property, even if that property is on the other side of a drinking water supply lake.
- More funding for DENR to regulate coal ash: though not part of the coal ash legislation, both chambers have included funding for 20+ new positions at DENR to implement the requirements in the coal ash bill.
What remains to be addressed or improved in the pending coal ash legislation?
- Criteria for prioritizing wet coal ash ponds for closure that is tied to groundwater contamination.
- Setting minimum standards, based on scientific data, for closure. Closure standards should allow alternatives to moving the ash from unlined ponds near water only if those alternatives are demonstrably as effective in protecting water supplies as removing the source of contamination.
- Standards for using coal ash for structural fill for structural fill projects under 80,000 tons/project of 8,000 tons/acre.
- A provision that appears to be an attempt to undermine a recent NC Superior Court decision by Judge Paul Ridgeway, that is currently under appeal. The Ridgeway court order requires Duke Energy to immediately remove the source of contamination from coal ash ponds that are polluting groundwater.
- A politically appointed new commission with broad discretion and little accountability to work with DENR to implement the bill. The new commission can use cost as a reason to reject a proposed closure plan.
- Open pit mines are included as an option within the definition of structural fill. Large structural fill projects including those in open pit mines (over 8,000 tons/acre or 80,000 tons/project) would have to comply with the standards for large structural fill projects in the bill (standards including liners, groundwater monitoring, etc…). Smaller structural fill (including open pit mine) projects would be subject to a 1 year moratorium during which DENR will study the issue. We do not know what, if any, standards will be developed for smaller structural fill projects including those that are open pit mines.
- Variance provisions (in the House bill) would allow the Secretary of DENR to extend deadlines for closure of coal ash ponds. The Senate does not support this House change and so this may come out or change during conference.
Thank you for your volunteer lobbying efforts on this important issue!
Cassie Gavin, Director of Government Relations
Sierra Club – NC Chapter