On the last day of the 2014 “short session,” the General Assembly reached overwhelming, bipartisan agreement on coal ash mitigation that will give North Carolina the strictest regulations on coal ash in the nation — and make it the first state to force the closure of all coal ash ponds. The legislation passed the Senate 38 to 2 and passed the House 84 to 13.
“Since day one, the House and Senate have agreed that fixing coal ash is a top priority, and I am proud of my colleagues for following through to deliver the most comprehensive, aggressive and science-driven mitigation plan in the entire country,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger. “As a resident of the community most severely impacted by the recent Dan River coal ash spill, I am personally grateful to Senator Tom Apodaca, who has spent hundreds of hours working on this bill, along with all House and Senate conferees for persevering to get this done.”
“This collaborative coal ash legislation between the House, Senate and Administration to clean up North Carolina’s decades-old coal ash problem will be the first in the nation to address this issue,” said Speaker Thom Tillis. “This comprehensive plan we have developed for North Carolina will be the foundation of coal ash management across the nation and help safeguard our water for future generations. I want to thank Representative Chuck McGrady, who is a past president of the Sierra Club, and our other House and Senate conferees for their hard work on this plan.”
Senate Bill 729 sets a firm 15-year timetable for dewatering and closing all unlined coal ash ponds in North Carolina and eliminates the practice of wet ash disposal. The plan requires the Dan River, Asheville, Riverbend and Sutton coal ash ponds to be excavated and closed as quickly as practicable – and no later than 2019.
The remaining ponds will be classified into three categories of risk. Sites determined to be high-risk must be closed within five years (by no later than 2019), intermediate-risk sites by no later than 2024 and low-risk sites by no later than 2029. High and intermediate-risk ponds may not be capped in place – instead, coal ash from those facilities must be stored in lined landfills or recycled toward a beneficial use such as concrete production or roadway construction. And low-risk ponds can only be capped in place if both DENR and an independent coal ash commission agree that this closure method is appropriate and long-term monitoring requirements are met.
Following several days of productive dialogue, lawmakers agreed to further strengthen the environmental protections related to low-risk sites. The conference report directs that proposed closure plans to cap a pond in place must be designed to prevent future groundwater contamination.
In addition, the bill mandates that all future coal ash disposal must be managed in new or existing lined landfills with extensive groundwater monitoring. It also requires pond owners to divert stormwater away from ash ponds and phase out the disposal of wet ash – the sludge that spilled into the Dan River – within five years. And it immediately makes it illegal to construct or expand wet coal ash ponds statewide.
The bill also:
- Forms a new, independent and specialized Coal Ash Management Commission to review and approve risk classifications and closure plans proposed by owners of coal ash ponds and DENR. The commission will make policy recommendations to the General Assembly to ensure efficient and safe coal ash management statewide. It will consist of nine people with experience in areas such as public health, waste management and conservation.
- Creates up to 30 new positions for the regulation, mitigation and oversight of coal ash management operations – 25 at DENR and 5 staff for the commission. These regulatory positions, along with the commission’s operating expenses, will be funded by utilities with coal ash ponds and cannot be passed on to consumers.
- Keeps and expands on many of the governor’s recommendations, including:
- Strengthening regulations on the use of coal ash as structural fill.
- Requiring utilities to assess and correct existing and future contamination of ground, surface and drinking water, with oversight through DENR.
- Strengthening dam inspection laws, by requiring more frequent inspections and creation of Emergency Action Plans.
- Bans utility companies from recovering costs for the damage caused by coal ash spills, including associated civil or criminal fines.
- Requires utilities to look at markets for innovative commercial uses of coal ash and study technology that could be used to more effectively manage coal ash. And it directs the commission, DOT and other agencies to study ways to recycle coal ash through beneficial use projects.