It might have been the upcoming holiday staring them in the face. Or maybe it was Hurricane Arthur barreling up the coast. But for a while this week, it appeared that the General Assembly was set to finally pass some major legislation to deal with Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds following one of the worst environmental disasters in the state’s history earlier this year when contaminated sludge was released into the Dan River. But by the close of business on Wednesday — and pending additional negotiations, maneuvers and voting on Thursday — there was a general consensus among environmental watch dogs that legislation beng considered may not have been worth the effort. What’s more, arguably one of the most critical elements of any legislation, at least from the perspective of the state’s tax-payers — the question as to who will pay for the clean-up of Duke’s 33 ponds — was not even being discussed in Raleigh.
“On the whole, the bill that is currently before the N.C. General Assembly does little more than codify what Duke has already committed to do, and potentially negates existing court rulings requiring that coal ash contamination be addressed,” Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, told me. “The bill does set up a process that could require the cleanup of additional sites, but based on the actions of state agencies and commissions to date, there is a high likelihood that the commission will be stacked with appointees who are willing to defer to whatever Duke Energy wants.”
And that’s exactly the assessment of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which said in a press release, “The North Carolina House of Representatives has weakened the already weak legislation from the Senate, putting the interest of Duke Energy, the polluter, over protecting our drinking water. The House ensures only four sites will be cleaned up, leaving many citizens and communities with no guarantee that the ash stored in pits — right beside their drinking water — will be removed. The bill would let even the most dangerous and leaky sites not yet identified for cleanup stay in place, threatening our waterways.”
Hanna Mitchell, who works locally with North Carolina Greenpeace, agreed, telling me, “Both the House and Senate coal ash bills are very weak and severely disappointing. They both conflate ‘closure’ with ‘clean-up,’ which could have severe consequences for water contamination. Only four of Duke’s 14 coal ash sites would be guaranteed to be cleared out and moved to properly managed sites. The rest could be capped and left to contaminate groundwater.”
The only slightly optimistic assessment I could find came from Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist who writes for CoalAshChronicles.com. “I am glad to see that, after all these years, the General Assembly is doing something, and I’m not at all surprised that it took a massive coal ash spill and public opinion polls to force them to act. The bill the Senate passed was alright, but then the House began tinkering with it in an attempt to make it more Duke-friendly. Still, with this bill, the state of North Carolina will end up with more coal ash regulations than most states. It would be great if the state would stand up and set an example for the rest of the country with strong and appropriate regulations that protect our drinking water, health and environment, but our legislators aren’t courageous enough to stand up to corporate interests.”