The most conspicuous failure in this year’s largely unsuccessful legislative session was the adjournment — or more correctly, congressional-style recess — last weekend without the passage of a bill responding to the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in February and the revelation that the other 32 Duke Energy coal ash ponds at 14 sites across the state are all leaking into the groundwater.
Both Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis pledged that a coal ash bill was a top priority for lawmakers this summer and Gov. Pat McCrory announced a plan of his own before the session began. Though his plan lacked many specifics, McCrory too was making it clear that something had to be done.
The Senate passed a relatively weak bill that was criticized for leaving much of the decision making about coal ash regulation with the weakened Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a new politically appointed coal ash commission.
The Senate plan also did not ban Duke Energy from ultimately passing on the cost of coal ash clean up to ratepayers and maybe most importantly allowed the company to cap many of the ash ponds and leave them in place, a decision sharply criticized by environmental advocates.
The House passed a bill that was even weaker. It included most of the Senate’s questionable provisions and fudged on the deadlines in the Senate plan for Duke to complete cleanup.
The two sides appointed a conference committee to work out the differences between the two bills.
Finally, not long before the recess when it was clear the two sides could not reach a final agreement, Senate leaders issued a press release blasting three of the four House negotiators for “going rogue” and insisting on tougher rules that no one had seen before, most notably a provision that would not allow coal ash ponds below the water table to be designated as low priority sites and capped in place.
In other words, the House conferees were demanding that Duke Energy clean up the ash ponds that posed the most direct threat to the groundwater.
The “rogue” conferees included two members of the Republican House leadership, Rep. Ruth Samuelson and Rep. Chuck McGrady, along with Democratic Rep. Rick Glazier. Republican Mike Hager, a former Duke Energy employee, was also on the negotiating committee, but refused to support the tougher language.
But it turns out the three House members pushing for a tougher bill were not going rogue at all. In fact, in a reportedly raucous private meeting, House Republicans pledged their support for the new provision over the strenuous objections of Hager and pressure from the powerful and well-connected Duke Energy lobbyists.
At this point the fate of the long-awaited coal ash bill reminds uncertain. House leaders want to consider it in an Aug.14 session while the folks running the Senate would rather wait until the scheduled Nov. 17 session.
Reportedly, the conferees have been talking in recent days and cooler heads may prevail. The question is which plan they will come up with.
Both proposals are too weak, allow too many ponds to remain in place, and let Duke off the hook for the ongoing damage and contamination their coal ash pits are causing, but at least the last House plan would make the company empty more of the polluting ponds.
The worry of course, is that in the end legislative leaders will cave to the political power and campaign contributions of the company. It is an election year after all.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.