ROCKINGHAM — A bill addressing the coal ash controversy following a spill into the Dan River earlier this year is on its way to the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers passed the Coal Ash Management Act late Wednesday before the General Assembly adjourned for the rest of the year.
The bipartisan legislation sets up a commission to oversee the management of coal combustion residuals, creates four priority sites across the state that have to be dealt with before any others and prohibits cleanup costs from being passed along to consumers of energy companies responsible for spills.
Two Richmond County lawmakers agree that the legislation is needed.
“I think it’s a good start to cleaning up this coal ash problem,” said Rep. Ken Goodman, D, Richmond. He added that it’s the first bill in the United States to address the issue.
Goodman said provisions will not allow coal ash to contaminate nearby properties.
He said that Duke Energy has always done what the state has required, adding, “We’re gonna expect them to clean it up, (but not) put them out of business in the process.”
Goodman said that some people wanted a tougher bill.
“It’s all about compromise,” he said, explaining that a tougher bill wouldn’t have passed.
He also said that the Dan River spill is a separate issue and that Duke Energy has to clean that “immediately.”
While Sen. Gene McLaurin, D, Richmond, agrees that it’s a good first step, he’s disappointed that the plant on the Yadkin-Pee Dee River was not listed as a priority site.
McLaurin said he hopes the new commission will revisit all the sites and that the legislature will make sure that cleanup deadlines are met and not pushed back.
“We need to protect the water supply of our citizens,” he said.
But coal ash isn’t the only threat to water that McLaurin is concerned about.
He thinks rules regarding hydraulic fracturing should be “clearly established” before any fracking permits are issued.
McLaurin said he’s heard from residents concerned about the chemicals used in the fracking process.
“Safety of drinking water is paramount,” he said, adding that it “has to be the highest priority.”
He said there is a lot of work left to be done to make sure that the proper safeguards are in place.
Currently, lists of the chemicals used are not available to the public at large, but they are available to first responders and regulators from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources should a crisis occur.
Goodman said those chemicals are considered proprietary, much like the formula for Coca-Cola. He said he understands people are uncomfortable with that.
Goodman said that while there is anecdotal evidence about contamination, “There is no documented case of fracking chemicals contaminating groundwater.”
He said his vote in support of the bill — signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in May — was a close call.
“I decided the science was good,” he said.
Goodman also listed energy independence and job creation as reasons for giving his nod.
McLaurin disagrees, saying the job creation numbers “haven’t been impressive.”
The former Rockingham mayor added that he’s a strong believer in local governments and communities having a voice in the process.
Neighboring Anson County — which is also in McLaurin’s district —has a moratorium on fracking.
But that hold is all for naught, as the law prohibits local governments from banning or limiting fracking.
The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission scheduled four public comment meetings to seek input on rules for oil and gas exploration. The first took place in Raleigh on Wednesday.
The nearest public comment meeting to Richmond County is planned from 5-9 p.m. today at the Wicker Civic Center, 1801 Nash St. in Sanford.
Meetings also are planned from 5-9 p.m. Aug. 25 at Rockingham County High School in Reidsville and 5-9 p.m. Sept. 12 at Western Carolina University’s Bardo Performing Arts Center in Cullowhee.
The Deep River Basin — a Triassic basin including a northwestern section of Richmond County, as well as sections of Anson and Montgomery counties — could be slated as a test site for fracking.
McLaurin said constituents in Anson have expressed concern about complications from earthquakes.
A fault line runs through the basin and produced a 2.9-magnitude earthquake in 2011.
McLaurin also suggested that there could be an issue regarding the gap between groundwater wells and the shale that holds natural gas.
He said some states have a larger gap, and believes more “due diligence” should be done before permits are handed out.
“Just because it’s been done in some states, “ he said, “doesn’t mean it’s right for North Carolina.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.