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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

NC House, After Heated Debate, Tentatively Approves Coal Ash Bill

The cleanup for the 2008 Tennessee coal ash disaster. Image taken March 2012.
Appalachian Voices
via Creative Commons/Flickr

At the General Assembly, lawmakers are getting close to finalizing a bill outlining the future of Duke Energy’s 33 coal ash ponds. Lawmakers have been looking into the situation since February, when 39,000 tons of ash leaked from one pond and coated the Dan River with gray sludge.

The issue of 100 million tons of coal ash in ponds across the state has been slowly growing over the past century.

Utility companies burned coal to generate electricity, cooled off the ashes by mixing them with water, and dumped them into unlined ponds.

"What we're realizing is while it may have worked fine in that time period, it's not a permanent solution to dealing with coal ash," Representative Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, told the House of Representatives Wednesday.

"So what you have before you is a plan, the only one of its kind in the nation, that is going to begin to do something that no one has done yet."

This new plan is similar to one the senate approved last week. It requires Duke Energy to close all ponds within 15 years.

And it sets up a commission of nine people who will decide in which order Duke cleans up the ponds, and how to clean them. In the highest risk ones, Duke would have to move all ash elsewhere. In the lowest risk, the company could cover some or all of the ash with dirt and monitor it for groundwater contamination.

There are four sites already slated to be handled within five years. But during Wednesday’s debate, some representatives wanted ponds in or near the districts prioritized, too.

For instance, Rep. Ken Goodman, (D-Rockingham), who asked for the Buck Stream station to be moved up on the list, or George Graham (D-Lenoir County), who asked for the Lee Powell Plant to be highly classified, or the Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), who asked about the Cape Fear Plant. Glazier’s got the the most debate, in part because it sits near the water supply for much of eastern North Carolina.

"It has already had several large discharges into the Cape Fear River, and a large one into an unnamed tributary of the Cape Fear River," Glazier said.

“Now I have really no doubt that Representative Glazier is right laying out the case as to why Cape Fear should be a high priority site,” replied Representative Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County and a lead bill sponsor. “But I say to you that we want the scientists and the experts to consistently make those decisions.”

Five Representatives asked for the sites in their back yards to be prioritized. Another asked for 29 of the 33 to be prioritized. But in the end, the House left the decisions to the panel of experts – except for the four originally singled out.

“Coal ash is a very local issue, and it does threaten waterways, and for communities it's a very big deal,” said  Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, of the Sierra Club of North Carolina. “It's understandable that every legislator that has a coal ash pond wanted to clean it up because these are dirty, they're polluting and they are dangerous.”

For Duke Energy, it’s a difficult proposal. A spokesman says it will be a significant challenge to comply with the 15-year timeline.

The bill passed an initial vote with 85 supporting and 27 against. A second and final vote is scheduled for this morning.

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