If adopted, N.C. Senate Bill 729 would require Duke Energy to close its coal-ash dump sites. This week, the proposed legislation inched closer to adoption as it wound its way through various legislative committees, and about a dozen people attended the June 18 social-networking series, Asheville Green Drinks, to learn more and note some of the bill’s shortcomings.
Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, and local Sierra Club leader Ken Brame provided an update on the bill and answered questions.
The bill requires Duke to dewater and excavate the coal-ash ponds at four sites in North Carolina — Sutton, Asheville, Dan River and Riverbend. If S.B. 729 passes, Duke must also move the coal ash at these sites into lined landfills (unless groundwater standards can be met without the liner) or put the material to beneficial use by 2019.
Duke has 33 coal ash ponds throughout the state, Brame pointed out, noting that although the bill targets four of those sites, there are others that pose risks to waterways and communities. Those other sites should be included in the bill, he said.
The bill prioritizes closures by listing each site as high-, intermediate- or low-risk, setting a faster timeline for the closure for high-risk sites and basing the type of closure on the classification.
“All four of those plants are deemed high-risk in the bill,” Mayfield said. “But don’t think that that means those are the most environmentally damaging.” She voiced concern that there are no actual standards for prioritization and S.B. 729 leaves far too much discretion in the hands of Duke Energy, the state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, and the new Coal Ash Management Commission.
The four sites named in the bill “are deemed high risk because those are the ones that we threatened to sue them on,” Mayfield said. “The high risk has nothing to do with the level of environment or community threat.”
Another major concern: High- and intermediate-risk sites could be converted to landfills without liner systems if Duke can meet groundwater standards. Mayfield and Brame argued that liners should be required in all converted landfills as a basic safety step.
“Liners are the best thing we have right now,” Mayfield said in response to an audience question about liner viability. “But it’s quite possibly one of those things where we look back 20 years from now and [ask], ‘What were we thinking?’”
Brame encouraged the crowd to contact legislators, demand stricter regulations on coal ash and tell them about the problems with the bill.
“Now is the time to start calling these folks,” Brame said. “Our groundwater and our safety [are] at risk here.”
Brame also encouraged the audience to thank legislators for taking the steps to get coal ash regulated. The material contains a host of concentrated toxins such as arsenic. In February, the failure of a pipe at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant released thousands of gallons of the toxic sludge into the waterway, leading to a federal and state investigation and shining a spotlight on the hazards posed by coal ash ponds.
“Even if a bill is passed that we aren’t excited about, it probably will be the first coal-ash management bill in the country,” he said. “And it will probably be stronger than what’s likely to come out of the EPA.”
Asheville Green Drinks is part of a self-organizing international grassroots networking event series: Green Drinks, which connects local communities to environmental consciousness, green endeavors, sustainable media and social justice action. For more information, go to ashevillegreendrinks.com.