RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators offered Duke Energy a cheaper alternative to excavating toxic coal ash from all its unlined pits, but neighbors and environmentalists cried foul after the deal was unveiled Tuesday.
A state Senate committee quickly advanced legislation allowing lower-cost alternatives to closing pits at half of Duke Energy's 14 coal plants, including drying out the watery pits and closing them in place. Pits at the company's other seven North Carolina coal plants were already slated for excavation under court orders of a 2014 state law passed months after an ash spill coated 70 miles of the Dan River in a toxic sludge.
The full Senate approved the proposal with a 44-4 vote Tuesday evening and sent it to the House.
Gov. Pat McCrory's environmental agency spent months evaluating health, safety and other factors risks before concluding in May that the residues left after decades of burning coal for power must be removed by 2024. But the Department of Environmental Quality and the nation's largest electricity company both said they wanted lawmakers to change state law to allow less-costly options.
Duke Energy has promised it will push to recover cleanup costs through higher power bills. The company originally estimated costs at about $10 billion to excavate and move the ash from all its pits.
The proposed legislative changes could allow Duke Energy to leave the ash in place if it supplies drinking water by October 2018 to plant neighbors who fear their water wells are polluted by arsenic, chromium and other hazardous elements. The company also must shore up iffy dams around some pits.
The prospect of having her water well replaced by a new municipal water line doesn't satisfy Amy Brown of Belmont, whose home is less than a quarter-mile from the company's nearly 60-year-old Allen power plant. Coal ash contaminants will continue leaking from the pits into groundwater streams below them years into the future, Brown said.
"We shouldn't have to choose between clean water and cleanup," Brown said. "This is unacceptable to put your toxic waste in the ground and leave it there."
Environmentalists blasted the legislation as bailing out Duke Energy and scrapping months of public input after DEQ's conclusion was opposed by the energy giant that employed McCrory for nearly 30 years.
"What is the overall impact going to be of those coal ash pits on groundwater and surface water? That's not going to be addressed now because of this bill," Sierra Club spokesman Dustin Chicurel-Bayard said.
Duke Energy denies its coal ash is contaminating underground water supplies or the rivers along which its power plants were built.
"Our science and engineering still doesn't indicate a connection between our operations and the findings in neighbors' wells," company spokesman Jeff Brooks said. "If these provisions can provide that peace of mind and allow us the flexibility to be able to close basins in ways that protect the environment and protect pocket books, that's a positive outcome for us."
The bill also would end a long-running battle between McCrory and legislators on coal ash cleanup oversight. Legislators created a commission in 2014 that would sign-off on cleanup plans proposed by DEQ, saying the second set of eyes was worthwhile because of McCrory's long ties Duke Energy.
McCrory fought lawmakers in court and the state Supreme Court ruled the General Assembly couldn't appoint most of the commission's members. McCrory vetoed a second attempt to create the commission last month.