The question about what to do with coal ash around the state came to the North Carolina House floor last night. In a contentious three hour debate, Republican lawmakers defended controversial changes to the bill they received from the Senate and defeated more than a dozen amendments. As the bill nears becoming law, here are four things to know about the latest version.
1. Deadline waiver
Perhaps most controversially, state regulators can waive deadlines for Duke Energy to close the leaky ponds where the ash is stored, if they determine a timeline is too stringent and not doable. North Carolina is the first state to try to eliminate its coal ash ponds completely, and Representative Ruth Samuelson, a Mecklenburg County Republican, argued for flexibility.
“Nobody’s done this before. Nobody knows exactly what the answers are,” Samuelson said. “Yet on the other hand we want a process, and we want deadlines, but because of that you have to allow for things to not go the way you thought they were going to go.”
Duke has already questioned some of the bill’s timelines. Environmental groups on the other hand are not happy. They think the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been soft on Duke for years and will abuse the exemptions for the company’s benefit.
“This is a ‘trust DENR’ bill,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “DENR’s coal ash activities are under investigation by a federal criminal grand jury. Who in their right mind would trust this agency?”
2. Fighting the lawsuit
The SELC has lawsuits underway against both Duke and the state board that oversees DENR, and won a case in March. A judge ruled that state law requires DENR to stop coal ash ponds from polluting groundwater immediately. The House bill changes the state law the judge based his ruling on, and would seemingly invalidate it.
Samuelson says the judge misinterpreted the law, and the new provision is simply a technical clarification.
“There’s some confusion about what was the intent of it,” Samuelson said.
“This is the worst example of blatant special interest legislation,” Holleman says.
Otherwise, the broad outlines of the bill are the same as the Senate version. State regulators and a new politically-appointed commission will sort ponds at most Duke coal plants into categories of high, medium, and low risk. Each category comes with different timelines and methods for closing ponds, extending from five years for high risk to 15 for low.
But the bill also specifically names four coal plants that essentially have to be classified high risk—at Riverbend in Gaston County, Asheville, Sutton, and Dan River. Last night, lawmakers tried to add other plants to the priority list, over objections from the bill’s shepherds.
“The reason those first four sites were identified was because there were environmentalists and legal groups who looked at it and determined those four sites need to be addressed, and that’s how they got on that list,” Samuelson said.
3. A fact check
There are various reasons cited for closing each of those four plants, but the original list came from Duke Energy. The company suggested closing those four in a plan it submitted to state regulators back in March.
An amendment to add the Cape Fear plant to the list, offered by a Republican, unexpectedly passed by a narrow vote of 56-55. That was not meant to happen, so one-and-a-half hours later the House called the amendment back for a rare second vote, drawing the ire of Democrats.
“This is a stunning parliamentary procedure, and I hope you’ll let me explain why it is nothing but fraudulent,” Cumberland County’s Rick Glazier said.
That spurred arguing and further name calling from both sides.
“It’s growing tiresome to hear the whining about it now," said Guilford County Republican John Blust. “I hope people will temper their remarks in the future.”
4. Ultimately bipartisan
The amendment lost the second vote, dying along with 14 others over the course of the three hour debate. But despite the failed amendments, the arguing, and criticism of the bill, it tentatively passed by a wide, bipartisan margin, just as the Senate version did.