Two big developments occurred Wednesday in an ongoing fight over how North Carolina utilities store the leftover byproduct of coal. Governor Pat McCrory released a plan of action to stop the current storage in unlined ponds from leaking into state waterways. Then, a judge decreed clean-up efforts to stop those leaks must begin immediately, even as Duke Energy and a state committee appeal.
In a two-page statement, the governor announced he will call for a new state law to require Duke Energy close the coal ash ponds at its retired coal plants and convert its storage methods at still-running plants. Conversion could mean storing the ash dry or finding ways to recycle, such as using it for landfill, as proposed at Charlotte-Douglas airport. State environmental secretary John Skvarla says the bottom line is stopping the pollution.
“This legislation is another attempt to accelerate the clean-up and enclosure of these coal ash ponds or to do whatever is the correct thing with these coal ash ponds, and not to be bogged down in litigation for the next ten years,” says Skvarla.
Environmental groups were quick to criticize the plan. The Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman points out the plan would not necessarily require Duke to excavate the ash to lined landfills—it could potentially stay covered and dry on the banks of waterways.
“It’s incomplete and inadequate,” says Holleman. “It does not require Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution or its dangerous coal ash storage.”
The plan will first study the sites, and develop closure plans specific to each, according to the governor’s statement. Skvarla says deciding to remove the ash from all sites is too simplistic.
“At 33 ponds and 106 million tons of coal ash, it might sound good in a sound bite,” Skvarla says. “In practical reality, we have to give ourselves the flexibility to do what is right.”
The closing of ash ponds at retired plants is the big ticket item, but the plan also includes more inspections of ponds and tighter regulation of dams and coal ash waste. The governor also says he will request funding in his next budget for 19 more employees at the environmental agency. Lawmakers have cut hundreds of staff since 2009, including 10 percent of water resources employees in March. Duke Energy says it is reviewing the plan.
Immediate action still required
But, a judge’s decision today could impact the governor’s coal ash plan. A judge reaffirmed that state regulators must require Duke to stop coal ash pollution immediately. Holleman says the decision means no bill is necessary.
“That means the governor has the authority he needs,” says Holleman. “He doesn’t have to seek it from the legislature to take the action he needs to take.”
The law center had sued regulators more than a year ago for refusing to take immediate action to stop leaks at the ponds, despite evidence of pollution in state waterways. The judge ruled in its favor. Both Duke and those regulators decided to appeal, and asked that the ruling not go into effect while they did so. Yesterday the judge denied that motion. It’s unclear if pursuing a new law on coal ash will satisfy the judge’s order.