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The great coal ash cupcake standoff

Activists urge legislators to enjoy the sweets, but stay away from sweetheart deals for Duke Energy

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RALEIGH — Coal ash activists laid siege to the state legislative building Wednesday, some armed with sweets to help get a foot in the door.

A coalition including NC WARN, Sierra Club and union organizers brought 170 freshly baked "coal ash cupcakes" to the state legislature's doorstep to announce that they expect no sweet deals for Duke Energy in the aftermath of a massive coal ash spill in North Carolina's Dan River in February.

Lawmakers are working on a plan to decide how the spill will be cleaned up and how the remaining 32 coal ash basins Duke has spread around the state will be moved. Perhaps more importantly, many people are concerned with who will be left with the bill: Duke Energy or its customers.

A lobbyist representing several North Carolina municipalities spoke under condition of anonymity about the coal ash mess and how it's being talked about within lawmakers' offices. He said he was startled by the state GOP's recent move to bring the State Bureau of Investigations out from under the jurisdiction of Gov. Pat McCrory's likely opponent for the governor's office in 2016, Attorney General Roy Cooper, and into the Department of Public Safety, which runs under a director appointed by the governor.

"[The SBI] is investigating McCrory's connections to Duke and cleaning up the coal ash," he said. "That's dirty politics and it's corrupt."

Five of the activists hoped to deliver a cupcake, along with literature regarding the negative effects of coal ash, to every representative within the House and Senate but ran into trouble as soon as they entered the legislative building. Clerk's office employees in the House told the group that it was illegal to deliver gifts to the representatives.

After a 10-minute conversation, security was called to the clerk's office, but cooler heads prevailed. An employee in the office gave the group written permission to deliver the literature and suggested they set the cupcakes on a table in the House's lobby for representatives and aides to grab as they pleased.

The group retreated for a short time and hung around fellow activists protesting cuts to Medicaid outside the building. They returned shortly later and delivered the cupcakes to Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison; she's authored a bill that would force Duke to pay for the cleanup of all its coal ash basins.

Though Harrison willingly accepted the cupcakes, General Assembly police officers showed up at her office. After a tense standoff, they allowed Harrison to keep the cupcakes, who promised to hand them out to fellow representatives.

The peaceful ending was a welcome contrast to earlier in the week when 11 activists were arrested in the legislative building after staging a sit-in in front of McCrory's office. Manju Rajendran, an organizer with NC WARN who led the baked goods brigade, was one of those taken into custody on Monday and cited for trespassing. She laughed nervously at one point on Wednesday after being told security had been called. "How many times can I get arrested in one week?" she asked no one in particular.

Fellow NC WARN organizer Kim Porter was frustrated with the red tape but vowed to deliver the ashy-looking double chocolate cupcakes to each representative.

"People send cookies and fudge to their representatives all the time," said Porter. "Duke gives them millions of dollars without blinking. We just want to give a cupcake."

Communicating to those in power is a larger struggle environmentalists have faced for years, but that's especially been the case for local activists since the Feb. 2 Dan River coal ash spill. They demand that Duke Energy and North Carolina politicians come to terms with the health risks of coal ash, including kidney disease, nervous system damage and worse conditions if ingested, inhaled or exposed to skin.

Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat from Wake County, said he chased some members of NC WARN down in the lobby after hearing about the cupcakes from one of his aides. He grabbed a couple, later joking that sweets and coal ash are both issues that are close to his heart. He said that he supports the framework of Harrison's original bill, which passes all the accountability for coal ash cleanup to Duke.

There will likely need to be compromises, however, between the two bills. A Republican-backed bill is currently being passed through the Senate while the Democrat-backed bill, which holds Duke fully responsible, was only recently introduced to the House.

"There are three goals: one that it's cleaned up and another that we don't store it [in unlined basins] in the future and ultimately I hope the taxpayers won't have to pay for this cleanup," said Hall. "I hope the shareholders bear the cost."

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