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Cleanup bill tags Asheville coal ash pond 'high risk'

State Sen. Tom Apodaca, taking the lead on the state's coal ash cleanup law, filed legislation today that outlaws construction of new coal ash impoundments, requires new and stricter monitoring of groundwater around the ponds and requires utilities to file cleanup plans with the state. The bill also puts Duke Energy's Lake Julian coal ash pond high on the cleanup priority list, designating it a "high risk" impoundment.

Coal ash pond spill cleanup and prevention suddenly became urgent after an impoundment breach dumped 82,000 tons of the power plant residue into the Dan River in the district of Senate leader Phil Berger on Feb. 2 of this year. Apodaca, a high-ranking member of the Senate, is the primary sponsor of a bill that would set the state's policy on the handling, storage and cleanup of coal ash. State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a leader in the House on environmental issue, is expected to help guide the legislation in that chamber.
The issue has relevance back home for Apodaca and McGrady, too, because Duke Energy operates an impoundment on Lake Julian to store the byproduct left over from its coal-fired electrical power plant there.
The bill would have a significant effect locally because it designates the Asheville coal ash impoundment as one of four high-risk storage ponds across the state. Others include the Dan River Steam Station, where the February spill occurred, and storage ponds at Duke Energy coal-fired plants in Gaston and New Hanover counties.The bill bars utilities from passing on to ratepayers the cleanup cost resulting from the unlawful discharge of coal ash into a river or lake.
Apodaca filed the bill today as a committee substitute, meaning the Senate bill delete and replace any legislation already filed by individual legislators or recommended by Gov. Pat McCrory. Cosponsored by Berger, the bill carrying the leadership's imprimatur is expected to be the main vehicle that ultimately sets the state's policy on the coal ash issue even if it gets amended along the way.
The bill would:


  • Require utilities to submit a groundwater assessment plan to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and then submit a corrective action plan to clean up any pollution of drinking water supplies.
  • Require utilities, in the event well water contamination is found, to replace the well with an alternate supply of potable water within 30 days of the determination.
  • Set a quicker timeline than now exists for utilities to notify the state of unpermitted coal ash discharges and make an assessment and execute a cleanup.
  • Require DENR by Aug. 1, 2015, to assess the risk of all existing coal ash ponds and set a timeline for their closure and remediation based on the risk to the public safety and health.
  • Require the owner of a "high risk" impoundment to close the storage pond "as soon as practicable" and no later than Dec. 31, 2019. The owner could either convert the pond to an industrial landfill or remove all coal ash and return the property to "a non-erorsive and stable condition." Intermediate-risk impoundments would have a closure deadline of Dec. 31, 2024, and low-risk ponds would face a Dec. 31, 2029 deadline.

The bill also rewrites state law on the use of coal ash in structural fill. Contractors have trucked tons of Lake Julian coal ash to the Asheville Regional Airport for use as fill for a runway expansion project. New regulation on the use of the ash for structural fill imposes a moratorium on the using ash as fill until Aug. 1, 2015, so the DENR, the state Environmental Management Commission and the Legislature can evaluate the risk. The bill would require stricter permitting and monitoring standards at sites using coal ash as structural filler. Duke Energy and other coal ash pond owners would have to issue request for proposals on the potential use of coal ash by the concrete industry.

Rick Wood, the Democratic nominee for the seat Apodaca holds, said Apodaca had not been as enthusiastic a supporter of coal ash pond regulations until now.

"I welcome Sen. Apodaca's conversion to the environmental cause," he said, "even if it might have taken the coal ash spill on the Dan River to jar him into using his powerful Senate position to take action. I don't recall Sen. Apodaca mentioning any concern about the coal ash pond at Lake Julian in the prior 12 years that he served."

Wood said he was glad to learn that a section of the bill bars Duke from passing the cleanup costs on to customers.

"I salute that," he said. "I think that's an important part of the legislation and I commend Sen. Apodaca and anybody else that had anything to do with getting that in there."
A section of the bill unrelated to coal ash requires wastewater plant owners to more quickly notify the state of any discharges into surface water. A sewage treatment plant would have to notify the state of a spill into a creek, river or lake within 24 hours. The law is now 48 hours.
The bill would fund 25 jobs to enforce the new regulations, imposing a new regulatory tax on public utilities of three-hundredths of 1 percent. The bill appropriates $1.75 million to fund the regulatory work of the new Coal Ash Management Commission and DENR.