by Billy Ball
With the N.C. General Assembly poised to approve coal ash cleanup legislation as soon as this week, questions about who pays for the cleanup continued to dog lawmakers during Tuesday’s session of the House Environment Committee.
Democrats on the panel, which was debating Senate Bill 729, called for legislators to mandate that Duke Energy be forced to pay the estimated $10 billion bill for the work, but were rebuffed by Republican bill sponsors who said it was too soon to decide who pays.
“We’re the first state in the nation to do this and we’re trying to do it as responsibly as possible,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Mecklenburg County Republican who co-sponsors the House version of the legislation.
GOP lawmakers suggested that the question could be left to the N.C. Utilities Commission once Duke tallies up the cost. As the Indy has reported in the past, many critics question whether a utilities commission well-stocked with former utility workers would make a fair assessment.
Included in the bill is a mandate that the energy giant close at least four “high-risk” coal ash sites—including the Eden site that spilled 35,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February—by August 2019. Sites designated as “intermediate” and “low” risk would be closed by 2024 and 2029, respectively.
A nine-member Coal Ash Management Commission, appointed by the House, Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory, would determine the priority for coal ash sites and review cleanup plans.
Bob Stephens, general counsel for the governor, warned legislators that the coal ash commission was an overreach of the legislative branch, arguing the group—because it would review and approve cleanup plans—would be performing the executive branch function of “carrying out the law.” Legislators disagreed. Expect more jostling for power.
Meanwhile, environmental advocates who spoke Tuesday alternately praised the bill for taking steps to rid the state of coal ash, but complained it was not stringent enough because it allows many sites to continue operation after 2019.
According to Donna Lisenby of the N.C. Waterkeeper Alliance, there is no such thing as a “low-risk” coal ash site.
“A colleague of mine called this bill the ‘tallest midget at the circus,’” said Lisenby. “We are relying on the House of Representatives to increase the stature of this bill.”
Committee lawmakers were expected to consider a proposed rewrite of the legislation immediately following this afternoon’s House and Senate sessions.