At the height of negative public opinion over the Dan River Coal Ash Spill, it appeared that our General Assembly actually might make some meaningful legislation to require the clean-up of Duke Energy's less than responsible handling of waste that threatens water supplies in numerous locations all over the state. Senate Bill 71 required study of the problem, removal of coal ash from leaking storage ponds and effective containment at other sites, a commission to oversee the implementation of the clean up, and specific deadlines for accomplishing clean up, which was vetoed by Gov. McCrory. Two years after the fact, public furor has dropped from a boil to a simmer and the House has been quietly gutting SB 71 with their "flexible" revision, HB630.
Previously, Duke Energy would have been required to begin removal of coal ash from leaking unlined basins as soon as possible, with "intermediate risk" impoundments to be closed "as soon as practicable, but no later than Dec 31, 2024, with closing plans submitted no later than Dec. 31, 2017, "low risk" impoundments to be closed no later than Dec.31, 2029, with plans submitted no later than Dec 31, 2018", with limitations on variances of those deadlines not to exceed three years. All of this was to transpire through the DEQ, with oversight by a Commission set up specifically for that purpose. But, with HB630, not only have these deadlines been pushed into the future, Duke Energy has been gifted with wiggle room to delay closures of leaking basins and the special oversight commission has been dispense with entirely. "The General Assembly authorizes the Secretary to grant variance to extend any deadlines under this act, on the Secretary's own motion or that of the impoundment owner on the basis that compliance with the deadline cannot be achieved by application of best available technology found to be economically reasonable at the time and would produce serious hardship without equal or greater benefit to the public." Of course it has been Duke Energy's contention from the beginning, that they could not meet the SB71 deadlines and that removal of coal ash would be too expensive.
So where does that leave us? Well, environmental groups claim that HB630 would allow leaking coal ash ponds to be reclassified and "capped in place" if the leaks are repaired, which would allow Duke Energy to leave coal ash in unlined ponds, rather than remove the coal ash from sites near threatened water sources, as long as they meet new water supply requirements. ("The Department may grant an impoundment owner an extension of time, not to exceed one year to establish permanent water supplies as required by this section, if the Department determines that it is feasible for the impoundment owner to establish a permanent water supply for a household by October 15, 2018, based on limitations arising from local government resources including limitations on water supply capacity and staffing limitations for permitting and construction activities.") It is astonishing that the provision of an alternate water source could mean the reclassification of "high risk" basins to "intermediate" or "low" risk, which have much later deadlines for clean-up. In addition, "...any impoundment classified as intermediate or low-risk that is located at a site which an ash benefication project is installed, operating and processing 300,000 tons of ash annually from the impoundment, shall be closed no later than December 31, 2029." While it is a good thing that coal ash might be used, rather than disposed of, this still means that 'intermediate risk" locations could gain a 5 year extension for closure. And, while minor in comparison, "Combustion residual surface impoundment fee shall be 0.022% of the NC jurisdictional revenues of each public utility with a coal ash combustion residual surface impoundment." This is a reduction from .03%.
Sounds like the GA wants to hand Duke Energy a sweetheart of a deal, while the residents near coal ash ponds continue to worry about the threat of contamination.
Governor McCrory has just signed into law, the opportunity for Duke Energy to drain unlined coal ash ponds that have been leaking into local water sources and "cap in place", if they provide alternative water sources for neighboring residents by late 2018, rather than remove the coal ash as was expected by the general public, based on recommendations from studies and the promises of the original Senate Bill 71, which McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee, refused to sign.
Rather than protect our precious water resources, the GA and McCrory have chosen to protect Duke Energy's profit margin. Perhaps they consider future disasters as business opportunities for lawyers, clean-up crews and bottled water companies.