NC senator says his chamber won't accept House coal ash bill; group criticizes Tillis in TV ad

A co-author of a Senate bill to clean up coal ash ponds at Duke Energy's North Carolina power plants said Thursday that his chamber would reject the House's competing version of the measure, requiring negotiators to forge a compromise.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said the Senate would "absolutely not" agree with changes the House made to the measure the Senate passed last month. The bill is designed in response to February's massive ash spill at a Duke plant in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge.

A Senate vote on the House measure was delayed Thursday, the same day an environmental group said it would spend $845,000 on television ads over the next two weeks calling out House Speaker Thom Tillis on the coal ash legislation. A Senate vote now could come Monday. Any final bill would have to be approved by both chambers before getting sent to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk.

The commercial by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters accuses Tillis, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, of failing to craft a bill that would better protect consumers' wallets and drinking water.

Both versions of the cleanup measure would require all 33 coal ash pits at 14 Duke Energy locations to be closed and the pits' contents either removed, stored properly or reused for construction projects by the end of 2029. Four locations — including the Dan River site — must be shut down within five years. The remaining pits would be evaluated by a new Coal Ash Management Commission and ranked into three categories of urgency.

Apodaca said he's concerned about the House measure because it allows the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to delay cleanup deadlines at some sites if Duke Energy is persuasive that compliance can't be met using the best technology in an economically reasonable manner and would present serious hardship. The Senate provides no such flexibility. The utility has said the 15-year deadline is too stringent.

Critics say neither measure specifically prevents Duke Energy from recouping the costs of shutting down ash pits through higher power rates. Legislative leaders say the Utilities Commission is best suited to decide who will pay for the cleanup, which could cost $10 billion according to Duke estimates. Both versions prohibit Duke from using higher rates to defray the Dan River cleanup.

The League of Conservation Voters accuses Tillis in its ad of siding "with corporate polluters." The ad featured TV news footage of the Dan River spill and asks viewers to call Tillis and tell him to "hold polluters accountable and keep our drinking water safe."

The legislation is just a "Band-Aid that allows members to say they addressed the problem without taking real action," league spokeswoman Debra Davis Rezeli wrote in an email. The ad will run in four major TV markets starting Friday through July 24, she said.

Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis' Senate campaign, called the commercial a "blatantly misleading attack" from special interest groups aligned with Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Tillis' election rival. Keylin said Tillis is the only candidate "who has taken swift and comprehensive action to directly address North Carolina's coal ash problem."