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Coal ash bill in limbo after NC Senate adjourns

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

The North Carolina Senate adjourned early Friday morning without finalizing a bill requiring Duke Energy to clean up its leaky coal ash dumps across the state.

Senate leaders sent their bill back to committee before heading home, nearly six months after a spill at a Duke plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge. It was a signal of deep divisions between Republicans in the Senate and House, who were unable to reconcile competing versions of the legislation despite weeks of negotiations behind closed doors.

Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Apodaca tersely blamed his counterparts in the House for the failure to reach a deal, saying they had insisted on new and unacceptable changes late Thursday. He plans to bring the measure back up when the Senate reconvenes after the November election.

"They wanted to play their games and that's fine," Apodaca, R-Henderson, said of the House members. "I'm just as disappointed. ... (This) was my top priority coming in here and up until about eight hours ago, I thought we could reach an agreement, then things took an odd turn."

Duke has 33 unlined ash pits scattered at 14 coal-fired power plants, containing more than 100 million tons of toxic ash. State regulators say all Duke's dumps are contaminating groundwater, threatening nearby rivers and lakes.

The impasse between the two chambers revolved around a section defining what level of environmental risk should be assigned to each of Duke's dumps.

The last version of the bill released publicly in early July required Duke to dig up and remove the ash at four sites deemed to pose the highest threat, including the plant where the Feb. 2 spill occurred.

But the bill would have left it up to a new state commission to determine the risk level posed by the remaining dumps, potentially allowing for Duke to simply cover the ash with a layer of plastic sheeting and leaving it in place. Coal ash contains such toxic chemicals as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Senate leaders said House negotiators were pushing to give more oversight for the coal ash cleanup to the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked at Duke for 29 years.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said some of the last-minute language proposed by the House was so obtuse and poorly conceived that his staff couldn't interpret what it actually did.

"We're going to delay the decision making and I think that's unfortunate," said Berger, a lawyer whose home district includes the Eden plant where the spill occurred. "If you have something you said is your highest priority, it doesn't mean you just do anything. It means you try to get it right and you do everything you can to get it as right as you can get it."

For their part, House negotiators said it was the Senate who were being inflexible. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, said Thursday the proposed House version included stronger language than what the Senate wanted.

Environmentalists derided both versions of the bill as being too weak, urging lawmakers to require Duke to dig up all its dumps and move the ash to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes. Duke had suggested such an effort would take 30 years and cost $10 billion, resulting in steep hikes to electricity rates for state residents.

D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, suggested that the failure of lawmakers to pass a bill would only prolong Duke's ability to pollute the state's waters without having to clean up its mess.

"The bill on the floor only undermined current law and greenwashed Duke's longstanding plans to cover its coal ash with a tarp and walk away," Gerken said. "The legislature needs to come back in November and deliver on the promises made to North Carolina's families to require real cleanup of coal ash."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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