Rowan’s state legislators support latest controversial coal ash bill

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — Rowan’s state legislators this week unanimously supported a controversial coal ash bill that would require Duke Energy to foot the bill for municipal water lines near Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds.

On Tuesday, the state senate approved the coal ash bill — numbered House Bill 630 — with the support of Sens. Andrew Brock, R-34, and Tom McInnis, R-25. The State House on Thursday approved the bill with the support of Reps. Carl Ford, R-77 and Harry Warren, R-76.

In both instances, the bill attracted bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. Following its passage in both houses, the bill now heads to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.

Brock said his primary reason for supporting the bill was a provision requiring Duke Energy to foot the bill for water lines within a half mile of coal ash ponds. He said safe water ranks higher than coal ash excavation for Dukeville residents.

“I just wanted to assure that people are taken care of and make sure that they have the cleanest water possible,” he said.

Ford, whose district includes Buck Steam Station and Dukeville, wasn’t able to comment about his vote by press time on Friday. However, he has said previously that safe drinking water was his main priority for the Dukeville community.

Votes in favor of the bill, however, received ample criticism from environmentalists and some Dukeville residents. Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said Duke would get a discount on coal ash cleanup because of the bill’s passage.”

“I think this is a huge victory for Duke,” Scott said. “Their lobbyists have done an amazing job. What they’re doing is pretty remarkable.”

Scott specifically expressed concerns about a provision in the measure that says state regulators “shall classify an impoundment (or coal ash pond) as low-risk” if Duke establishes a permanent water supply and fixes deficiencies in the structure of coal ash ponds.   

Capping coal ash ponds in place would allow contaminated water to continue seeping into the Yadkin River, Scott said. It’s estimated that more than 70,000 gallons of contaminated water per day are discharged into the Yadkin River.

When asked about the criticism he’s received for the vote, Brock countered that Duke Energy “has got to pay” as a result of the bill’s passage. He said the company would be required to foot the entire cost of municipal water lines being extended to Dukeville. An engineering firm hired by Rowan County has estiamted extending municipal water lines to Dukeville would cost $4.8 million.

Dukeville resident and environmental activist Deborah Graham said she has done everything the state asked, including attending public hearings, making speeches and meeting with elected representatives in Raleigh. Still, state representatives haven’t listened, Graham said.

Attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, who represents a number of coal ash neighbors, questioned why elected representatives would ignore members of the public.

“Why would our legislators support a bill that completely disregards the 8,000 North Carolinians that spoke out during the public comment process?” Wallace asked in a prepared statement.

Despite the multi-million-dollar cost it will incur in Dukeville, Duke Energy says it supports the recently passed bill.

We support this bill and appreciate that the legislature and administration continue to seek solutions to protect the environment and local communities, while preserving the full range of options to safely close ash basins in ways that also protect customers’ pocketbooks,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert in an emailed statement.

Addressing a preference for excavation, Culbert said the Yadkin Riverkeeper aims to “saddle North Carolinians with the most expensive, most disruptive and most extreme solution that won’t provide additional environmental benefit.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.