Senate advances plan to close all NC coal ash ponds

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The Pine Hall Road Ash Landfill (foreground) sits on the banks of Belews Lake across Pine Hall Road from the Belews Creek Steam Station. Now closed, the wet ash disposal site is where Duke Power stored decades worth of the byproducts from the coal burning process at Belews Creek. (Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal)

RALEIGH, N.C. — With unanimous support, the North Carolina Senate tentatively passed sweeping legislation Tuesday to close every coal ash pond in the state and ensure North Carolina has the strictest regulations on coal ash in the nation.

The bill sets a firm 15-year deadline for dewatering and closing all unlined coal ash ponds in North Carolina and designates four sites (Dan River, Asheville, Riverbend and Sutton) to be excavated and closed as quickly as practicable — and no later than 2019. It also stops the disposal of wet coal ash and requires future coal ash to be put to a beneficial use or into a lined facility.

“Today the Senate passed a comprehensive and aggressive plan to address the decades-long environmental and consumer protection concerns caused by coal ash ponds – and to get North Carolina out of the coal ash business,” said Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) and Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), the bill’s primary sponsors.

The plan also:

  • Directs the remaining ponds to be classified as high, intermediate or low risk and sets firm closure deadlines based on the overall risk they pose.
  • Specifies that coal ash from any pond deemed high or intermediate-risk must be excavated and either stored in a lined landfill or recycled toward a beneficial use. Low-risk ponds can only be capped in place if both DENR and an independent coal ash commission allow and if strict closure and long-term monitoring requirements are met.
  • Protects North Carolina consumers by banning utility companies from recovering costs for the damage caused by coal ash spills, including associated civil or criminal fines. And it immediately places a moratorium on all rate increases from utilities that use coal ash ponds in North Carolina until January 15, 2015.
  • Strengthens regulations on the use of coal ash as structural fill, by requiring large structural fill projects to be permitted, use a landfill-grade liner and conduct long-term groundwater monitoring. And it places a one-year study moratorium on all other projects except roads.
  • Requires utilities with coal ash ponds to fund – at no expense to consumers – new regulatory positions and a new independent coal ash commission to ensure efficient and safe coal ash management in the future.