Coal ash is complicated

We’ll be the first to admit: cleaning up North Carolina’s coal ash mess isn’t going to be easy.

Yesterday, a newly rewritten legislative bill (Senate Bill 71) put the coal ash conundrum on full display. In response to Governor Pat McCrory’s dismantling of the Coal Ash Management Commission, Representative Chuck McGrady brought forth legislation to revive the overseeing authority. The Coal Ash Management Commission served as an independent body that was formed following the passage of the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act. Part of this was in response to a lack of faith by legislators in the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

However, SB71 did more than seek to re-instate the Coal Ash Management Commission. It a included provision requiring Duke Energy to supply drinking water to affected communities but then also extended the previously-created loophole for the utility giant to delay further cleanup efforts.  We shared our concerns over specific aspects of the bill to all elected officials here.

In response to the proposed bill, the Southern Environmental Law Center responded:

“This bill shows again that Duke Energy and politicians in North Carolina believe that Duke Energy does not have to comply with the law like everyone else in the state. Either Duke Energy breaks the law, the state government does not enforce the law against Duke Energy, or, when it’s inconvenient for Duke Energy to obey the law, the state’s politicians try to change it for Duke Energy’s benefit. Sooner or later, Duke Energy must obey the law and stop polluting North Carolina’s clean water with coal ash. And sooner or later, North Carolina’s politicians have to put the public interest above Duke Energy’s special interest.”

Many other environmental groups expressed concerns with the legislation as written, citing the likely potential for further inaction as the top frustration. But, do you know who else doesn’t like this bill? Governor McCrory. His lawyers immediately advised lawmakers that the Governor would veto the legislation prior to the bill being heard on the House floor. Despite the threat, legislators moved forward in passing SB 71, partly to demonstrate a commitment to the principle of checks and balances in our state Constitution. The bill passed the second reading 86 – 25 with a motley crew of members both supporting and opposing and now is on its way to the NC Senate.

Since the spill of over 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014, state leaders have passed laws, retracted them, sued, dismantled a commission, and submitted conflicting reports on the risk posed by each coal ash pond.

Some of our coal ash has been on the move. Nearly 750,000 tons of ash from Wilmington and Mount Holly have made its way to clay mine pits 50 miles north of Fayetteville. As you may recall, Lee County residents were enraged that this toxic material was now going to be their neighbor. Were community residents in the wrong? Absolutely not. Does it make the decision easier? Again, absolutely not. As the Fayetteville Observer editorial board astutely reflected: “Burying the ash in old clay mines isn’t the perfect solution we would hope for, but it beats leaving the ash in unlined pits where there’s a danger of heavy metals leaching or leaking into public water supplies.”

With tens of millions of tons of coal ash still sitting in unlined, leaking pits, near our mountains, coast, and Piedmont, our elected leaders have an obligation to remedy this quickly. Rather than play the blame-game of 80+ years of inaction (which, let’s be real, if the Dan River spill had not happened, would we have actually seen progress on addressing this danger to our environment and health?), we need leaders to ensure that whatever decisions are made regarding coal ash clean up, they prioritize the people of this great state before polluters.

And that should not be complicated.