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North Carolina House approves coal ash bill

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Tanks used to cleanup coal ash from the Dan River Tanks used to cleanup coal ash from the Dan River
RALEIGH, N.C. -

A bill requiring Duke Energy to close all of its coal ash dumps across the state within 15 years was passed Thursday by the North Carolina House, but environmental groups say it doesn't go far enough.

The bill now heads to a conference committee where lawmakers will work out differences between the House and Senate versions.

If both houses approve a compromise, it will go to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.

Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, encouraged members to vote for the bill, even if they disagree with some provisions.

"This is unlike anything that's been done in any other state. You have an opportunity to vote for something that's historic," he said.

The House version includes several measures not included in the Senate bill, including a provision that could give Duke some leeway on cleanup deadlines.

The House legislation also requires high-risk dams to have an emergency action plan and rolls back the expiration date for a moratorium on rate changes by three months, to Dec. 31, 2016.

A measure allowing Duke to draw water out of the ponds to prevent possible groundwater contamination was also added, along with a directive to reuse coal ash instead of capping it in ponds.

An amendment from Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, barring Duke from passing the costs of cleanup to rate payers was defeated in the House.

Martin and other Democrats said it was necessary to protect citizens.

"The rate payers really should not be penalized further in this bill," said House Minority Leader Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham.

But Republicans argued that rate changes are considered by an impartial utilities commission that has a staff dedicated to the public's concerns.

Differences over creating a coal-ash commission still must be worked out between the House and Senate.

McCrory has objected to the Senate's plan to name a new nine-member commission to oversee hazard rankings and closures of Duke's ash pits.

McCrory's general counsel, Bob Stephens, has warned the commission violates the separation of powers between the legislative branch, which makes law, and the executive branch that enforces it.

Stephens said McCrory doesn't object to creating the commission but that it "needs to be appointed by the executive branch."

The Senate measure gives the legislature six of the nine appointments and McCrory only three.

But the General Assembly's special counsel Gerry Cohen said the Senate measure doesn't violate the separation of powers doctrine.

"The Constitutional history of our appointments clause has been construed repeatedly by the State Supreme Court specifically to allow legislative appointments, including the majority of members of an executive branch board," Cohen wrote in a June 24 memo obtained by the Associated Press.

Duke has 33 unlined ash pits at 14 coal-fired power plants across the state, all of which state environmental officials say are contaminating groundwater and threatening nearby rivers and lakes. Coal ash contains numerous toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium, mercury, and lead.

The House plan requires the nation's largest electricity company to close its ash pits by 2029 and close four high-risk sites — Dan River, Asheville, Sutton and Riverbend — within five years.

Environmental groups say the House has weakened already weak legislation from the Senate, putting the interest of Duke over protecting drinking water. About a half dozen people in the House gallery held signs protesting the bill Thursday.

"This is a protect Duke Energy bill, rather than a coal ash cleanup bill," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over coal ash pollution.

Holleman said the legislation promises that scientists and experts will prioritize which sites get cleaned up first. But he said he's skeptical.

"What scientists are they talking about? Engineers at Duke who have been operating these coal ash ponds all along? The political appointees at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who haven't enforced the law for years?" he said.

Kara Dodson of Appalachian Voices told WNCN, "With this bill, Duke Energy has no liability to pay for that cleanup. It will actually get passed to the rate payers if the Utilities Commission sees it that way. So, we want to keep fighting, because it doesn't end here."

Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said by email Wednesday that the company agrees coal ash needs to be addressed quickly, but the timelines in the bill will be hard to meet. Excavation at its larger sites could take 30 years, he said.

"We are very concerned that the bill sets aggressive timelines for closure without clarity on how low, medium and high priority sites will be determined," he said.

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