North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, pressured by a February coal ash spill at a shut Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) power plant, announced April 16 a plan that would address coal ash ponds and strengthen environmental and health regulations.
The initiative would result in the conversion or closure of all the state’s coal ash ponds, close loopholes in state law to strengthen the state’s ability to regulate coal ash ponds, eliminate special exemptions for utilities and increase regulatory authority to ensure dam safety and protect water quality.
“Since taking office in January 2013, my administration has discovered a number of long-standing shortcomings in state law that hamper our ability to adequately protect public health and the environment in addition to dealing with emergencies when they happen,” said McCrory. “We need to close these loopholes and give our regulators the tools they need to solve this more than 60-year-old coal ash problem.”
The plan focuses on three main areas: the conversion or closure of coal ash ponds in North Carolina; increasing pond and dam safety; and protecting drinking and groundwater quality. The governor’s proposed budget for FY2014-15 will also include funding for 19 additional positions to help enforce environmental protections.
The governor proposed statutory authority that will address the long-term disposition of coal ash as well as the conversion or closure of all 33 of the state’s coal ash ponds. The site-specific closure plans, the preferred method of state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will use data from comprehensive environmental assessments of the 14 coal-fired facilities in North Carolina, including the identification and potential testing of drinking water wells near ash ponds.
Duke, since its merger with Progress Energy, has basically taken over the bulk of coal ash storage in North Carolina. McCrory spent 29 years working for Duke, which has raised criticism from environmental critics saying that the state was going too easy on Duke prior to the February ash spill at the Dan River plant.
McCrory’s plan would also strengthen dam safety laws by removing loopholes for coal ash ponds, requiring utilities to submit operational and emergency-action plans to the state. It would also tighten notification requirements for dams and wastewater spills and require increased inspection schedules for all North Carolina dams.
Finally, the plan would close loopholes that currently exempt utilities from landfill requirements when ash is removed from impoundments. The plan would also apply the state’s solid waste protections for landfills when coal ash is used as a structural fill in large-scale projects. These projects can be a preferred disposal solution for coal ash provided they are engineered correctly and monitored appropriately. The governor’s proposal would give state regulators the authority to ensure the projects are structurally and environmentally sound.
The governor called on legislative leaders to work with his administration to address the issue of coal ash when they convene in Raleigh for the upcoming short session.