Really, senator? The coal ash bill is something we should be proud of?



Submitted for your consideration, this entry into the “most blatantly, obviously absurd statements by a politician in this election year” category: After the General Assembly finally ended what should have been a short session to handle a budget shortfall on Wednesday, in which it passed a bill to address Duke Energy’s third-worst coal-ash spill in U.S. history earlier this year — a bill that was mired for months in the highest drama, conflict and controversy — the senator who led the work on that bill, Republican Tom Apodaca of Henderson, told the Charlotte Observer, probably with a straight face, “This makes North Carolina the leader in coal ash management in the United States. I think we can go home proud.”

Really, senator? We’re now the leader in handling coal ash in the nation? And this bill — well, this law, assuming Gov. McCrory signs it, as everyone expects him to do — is something we should be strutting around about? Let’s take a moment to examine that assertion just a bit, shall we?

First, here’s what may be the most astounding point: As far as “the nation’s leader in coal ash management” is concerned, Apodaca may be ... correct. But that’s the problem. This is, arguably, the most comprehensive legislation concerning coal ash regulations passed by any governing body in the country. That should say just how much our representatives — Democrats and Republicans alike — have abrogated their responsibility on the toxic residual of years of burning coal for energy.

What we in North Carolina have been left with is a boiled-down compromise that even the Republican leader shepherding the bill in the House signals is just the beginning, not the end, saying that legislators will take up the issue of the cost of the clean-up of the state’s coal ash containment sites during the next session. For now, the cost may end up being solely the responsibility of rate payers. Other major issues that have also been left hanging include whether it is really safe to simply put a “cap” over some coal-ash sites where it could eventually leak out (it’s not), rather than removing the ash and burying it elsewhere. “This is Coal Ash I,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville. “There’s going to be a Coal Ash 2 and probably a Coal Ash 3. We’re not going to get it all right the first time, but this bill gets us moving.”

Somewhat predictably, local environmental advocates aren’t at all happy with this legislation. The Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins called it “a woefully inadequate plan. Some acknowledge it may signal improvement, albeit progress prompted only by the experience and resulting massive publicity, of the Dan River environmental disaster in February. Rhiannon Fionn, of the watch-dog publication “Coal-Ash Chronicles”, told me: “The fact that the General Assembly kept picking up and putting down the coal ash issue only to finally pass legislation at the last moment is telling: They know their constituents want something done about coal ash. So, the state now has more coal ash regulations than any other. Could the lawmakers have done better? Yes. Is this move better than nothing? Yes. Will ratepayers have to pay to clean up Duke Energy’s mess, and will they clean it all up? That remains to be seen.” (Rhi also occassionally write for this publication and, it should be said, broke the story about coal ash in and around Charlotte years ago in CL.)

When asked to specify what, in her opinion, a “perfect” bill would have done, Fionn said: “(It) would have established a standard for state governments nationwide, and gone a long way to help the current N.C. General Assembly move away from the idea that it’s biased toward corporate interests, and [is] completely bought and paid for by Duke Energy on this issue. A strong bill would have called for the cleanup — not closure — of every coal ash impoundment and landfill at every coal plant in the state. Further, a truly strong piece of coal ash legislation would have forced the company to pay for the cleanup versus what it did, which is leave that question up for debate. What we got was just OK; it’s better than nothing and really only came about because of political pressure from the people.”

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