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Local delegation clashes in high-profile coal ash blowup

State Rep. Chuck McGrady confers with House Speaker Thom Tillis on the House floor in May. State Rep. Chuck McGrady confers with House Speaker Thom Tillis on the House floor in May.

The collapse of a coal-ash cleanup bill late Thursday night pitted Hendersonville legislators Tom Apodaca and McGrady against one another in a fight over the high-profile bill as the 2014 legislative session came to an end.

Apodaca, the second-ranking Republican in Senate, and McGrady, a second-year legislator and former national Sierra Club president who has taken the lead in the House on environmental legislation, each were primary sponsors of the coal-ash cleanup bills in their chambers.
Senate Leader Phil Berger had labeled the coal ash cleanup a priority since February when a containment pond breach sent tons of the ash into the Dan River in his hometown of Eden. Berger appointed Apodaca to lead the effort in the Senate and the legislation did not appear to face major hurdles.
Late Thursday night House leaders made changes to the bill that Apodaca and his Senate colleagues didn't want.
"He came back and said we have problems with the provisions (the House proposed)," McGrady said. "We had a formal conference committee. We got one of the two issues resolved. We didn't get the other one.
"He caught me yesterday to say there is no middle ground. We had to accept the Senate's position. I took it to some of my colleagues, and brought back the message that it wasn't going to happen. At that point he got very mad."
Apodaca said. "We disagreed over the language."
"We had a bill worked out and at the last minute the House wanted to make changes and the changes they wanted to make weren't in either of the bills we talked about," he said. "The main thing is the disagreements were not over the Asheville plant. It was over the 25 or 30 in the state" that are not categorized as high-priority cleanup sites. Duke Energy's Lake Julian coal ash ponds are ranked in both House and Senate bills as high-priority sites that will be cleaned up first. The House wanted the state Department of Natural Resources to assess the risk of coal ash ponds across the state; the Senate bill gave the task to a new independent commission.
Berger and Apodaca issued a news release Friday saying that McGrady and other House leaders "went rogue and attempted to strong-arm entirely new policy no one had ever seen before."

"In June, the North Carolina Senate passed a strong coal ash bill based on a proposal by Gov. Pat McCrory that would give North Carolina the strictest regulations on coal ash in the country and make it the first state to force the closure of all coal ash ponds," the Senate's news release said. "The North Carolina House then weakened our bill significantly, and forced us into conference negotiations to reconcile differences between the two versions. For several weeks, we have been working in good faith with House conferees to agree on the strongest bill possible. We thought we had arrived at an agreement and it was signed by all the Senate conferees and by one of the four House conferees.
"Unfortunately, at the 11th hour, the three other House conferees went rogue and attempted to strong-arm entirely new policy no one had ever seen before – that didn't appear in either version of the bill – into the final legislation."
McGrady disputed the "rogue" characterization.
"I was acting after fully consulting both with my caucus, our fellow House Republicans and with my leadership," he said. "My caucus and my leadership, specifically Speaker Tillis, were backing the position that the House conferees were taking."
Meanwhile, McCrory on Friday issued an executive order to ensure that coal ash cleanups continue. The House and Senate are expected to take up the legislation again when the General Assembly comes back for a special session in mid-November to deal with unresolved issues in health and human services funding.