Deal for coal ash bill remains elusive as NC legislators rush to wrap up legislative session

North Carolina lawmakers said Thursday they still haven't reached agreement on legislation requiring Duke Energy to limit pollution leaking from its coal ash dumps across the state, nearly six months after a spill coated 70 miles of the Dan River with gray sludge.

Republicans in the House and Senate signaled earlier that a compromise bill would be ready for a vote by Thursday evening, but later conceded negotiations had broken down.

The Senate version includes firm deadlines for Duke to clean up or cap its 33 ash dumps and creates a commission to oversee the process, with legislators appointing the majority of the seats. The House is pushing to give more oversight authority to the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked at Duke for 29 years.

One leading House negotiator, Rep. Chuck McGrady, voiced his frustrations on Twitter.

"Believe we are at an impasse on the coal ash bill," wrote McGrady, R-Henderson. "We'll continue to work on coal ash, but I don't see an obvious way to resolve differences as between House and Senate."

Sen. Tom Apodaca declined to discuss precisely what was at issue, but suggested the House caused the hold-up.

"The biggest impasse we're having is that the House brought language that wasn't in either bill and it would substantially change this bill," said Apodaca, R-Henderson. "And we're saying that's not eligible and we're going to stick to it."

Apodaca said his chamber had signed a compromise version of the bill and was waiting for the House conferees to agree to it. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, responded that they couldn't sign off on that version of the bill because the Senate had not shared it with them.

"We've not seen it," said Samuelson, one of the House negotiators.

Samuelson said the impasse is over a single provision defining which "low risk" ash dumps Duke would be allowed to cap with plastic sheeting and dirt. Coal ash contains such toxic chemicals as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Environmentalists want all the ash dug up and moved to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes. The last version of the bill publicly released required Duke to remove the ash at four of its 14 coal-fired plants.

As negotiations continued behind closed doors, concern grew among environmental groups that a bill they already describe as too weak would be watered down further.

They pointed to a provision inserted in an earlier draft of the bill that appears intended to undermine a recent North Carolina judge's ruling that Duke must take "immediate action" to eliminate groundwater contamination leaching from its ash dumps if the pollution crosses onto a neighboring property.

Instead, they said the language inserted into the bill would potentially allow Duke to study the problem for an indefinite period before proposing a timetable for a cleanup.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that runs counter to the recent court decision, which Duke and state environmental regulators are appealing.

If approved in the final bill, it would be the second time in a year that legislators intervened to change the law to potentially benefit Duke.

The environmental law center joined with citizens' groups last year to file a lawsuit alleging the state failed to enforce the law by not requiring Duke to clean up underground plumes of pollution leaking from its ash pits — even when the contamination threatened neighboring properties and waterways.

Republican lawmakers then responded by tucking a provision in a 2013 regulatory reform bill that effectively allowed Duke to avoid cleaning up the contaminated groundwater.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled in March that the change in the law meant that Duke no longer had to clean up contamination on its own property. But the company was still required to take "immediate action" if tests showed the pollution had spread beyond Duke's property line, Ridgeway said.

Holleman said the provision in the coal ash bill, if approved, would give Duke the leeway it needs to delay cleaning up its mess for years.

"They are doing everything they can to undue the ruling," he said.


Associated Press writer Mitch Weiss reported from Charlotte.


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