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Coal ash bill puts local delegation in spotlight

State Rep. Chuck McGrady huddles with House Speaker Thom Tillis on the House floor. State Rep. Chuck McGrady huddles with House Speaker Thom Tillis on the House floor.

RALEIGH —Arranging a meeting on the high-profile coal ash legislation, state Sen. Tom Apodaca made sure he had his attorney, Julie Bradburn, in the room.

When Rep. Chuck McGrady arrived at the meeting, a visitor asked whether he had brought his attorney, too. The question provoked a guffaw from McGrady.

"I'm a sophomore," he said. "He's the class president."
Never mind that McGrady is himself an attorney, if a reformed one. (He doesn't practice law.) He is several rungs down the pecking order in the seniority-driven General Assembly. Yet McGrady has something that few Republicans running things today in Raleigh can claim: credibility in the environmental community.
A former national president of the Sierra Club, McGrady has throughout his public service career been an advocate for and something of a specialist in conservation issues — whether guiding land-use planning on the Board of Commissioners or handling environmental bills in the state House. He was one of only two Republicans who voted against a regulatory reform act that critics said relaxed environmental rules for Duke Energy.
A six-term veteran of the Senate, Apodaca is second in command in the upper chamber to Senate president pro tem Phil Berger, who landed in the middle of the coal ash controversy when a Duke Energy ash pond burst, polluting the Dan River in his hometown.

Center stage on big issue

Apodaca and McGrady, both R-Hendersonville, took center stage this month as the General Assembly debated how it will force Duke Energy to close 33 coal ash ponds across the state. The work starts with four "high risk" ponds, including the one on the Dan River and another on Lake Julian in South Asheville, which is in Apodaca's district.
Known more for their muscular pro-business record than environmental work, Apodaca and Berger came out with a surprisingly tough bill requiring Duke to close and clean up coal ash ponds across the state. The Senate bill sets an aggressive timetable for Duke to plan for the closures and creates a nine-member Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the process. Apodaca's bill does not rule out a request by Duke to pass the cleanup cost on to ratepayers. He compares it to the North Carolina smokestack cleanup bill of the 1990s, considered a model of environmental legislation.
"Coal ash ponds started in the '30s, and they're getting larger and larger and larger," Apodaca said. "We have some of the cheapest electricity. I trust and I'll support what the commission decides. ... I want Lake Julian gone. It is a hometown thing for me, and it's a hometown thing for all the other senators when the other one's in their district. No option. They've got to clean it up."
Apodaca's opponent, Democrat Rick Wood, said in an email that Apodaca's bill could cost households up to $20 a month.
"As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and in this case, the devil is quite active," Wood said. "While it does speed up the cleanup process and it does make Duke pay for actual spill cleanups, it does leave a big door open for the Utility Commission to pass the cleanup cost onto ratepayers, after January 15, 2015. That has been estimated as high as $20 a month increase on individual Duke bills.
"The other devil in the details is that there is no penalty for Duke not complying with provisions in this bill. In fact, regulatory enforcement is taken away from DENR entirely and handed over to a new entity to be created, a Coal Ash Management Authority, that will consist of appointees by the House, Senate, the governor — in other words, all political appointees."
Apodaca responded: "That's ridiculous. What does he know?"
In fact, he added, his bill goes a long way toward taking politics out of the issue.
"No. 1, we had the Coal Ash Commission decide which ponds are going to be closed down," he said. "No. 2, rates go to the Utilities Commission to decide who pays what. (Wood) might want to study that. We have a public utilities commission that's charged with deciding rates."
Wood's comments and a phone call he received from Attorney General Roy Cooper rile Apodaca.
"As we saw yesterday with our attorney general and evidently my opponent, they're trying to make this a political issue and it's time to stop politics and clean this mess up," he said. "I was extremely disappointed in Roy Cooper. He calls me up yesterday and says he can't support my bill — quote unquote he thinks consumers should be protected and that Duke should pay for it, and I said, Roy, 'It's in the bill,' and he tells me he hadn't even read the bill. But he's against it just for that political purpose. Then, 45 minutes later, we get a blurp from his campaign asking for donations to fight coal ash. He politicized it. Within an hour, he sent it out under his campaign."

'Why get Duke involved?'

Sitting in Apodaca's outer office waiting for his appointment to discuss the coal ash legislation, McGrady said he was meeting with interested parties and expecting to spend this past weekend drafting the House bill.
"I'm soliciting the groups of really three people — DENR (the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and the administration, 2, Duke Energy, and 3, broadly the environmental community and the public," he said. "All of them are sort of the major players here.
"People say, 'Why get Duke involved?' Well, we're going to put in place a set of deadlines and the worst thing in the world would be for us to write legislation that isn't doable. We're really trying to figure out what does Duke think is doable and when. They know what the problem is more so than we do."
Then off he went into the meeting, solo, with nothing more than his broad knowledge of environmental regulations. He crossed Apodaca's welcome mat, which reads "Go Away." Politics — and the potential for a catastrophic coal ash spill into the French Broad — makes strange bedfellows.