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Originally published: 2014-04-17 18:17:38
Last modified: 2014-04-17 18:18:23

McCrory announces coal pond plan

by Anna Oakes

Two months after a broken pipe released an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of coal basin water into the Dan River, Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday announced a plan to close or convert the state's 33 coal ash ponds.

The governor's office and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources presented draft legislation said to "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," McCrory said in a statement.

"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 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 fiscal year 2014-15 will also include funding for 19 additional positions to help enforce environmental protections, McCrory's office said.

Under the proposed legislation, coal facility owners must submit a site-specific closure plan for each of the 33 coal ash ponds -- "the preferred method of state regulators and the (U.S.) Environmental Protection Agency," the governor's office stated.

The closure plans must include a proposed closure method, the draft legislation states. Closure methods include:

1. "Closure-in-place," in which a cover system such as a composite geomembrane, impermeable clay and/or a soil cover is placed over the ash pond;

2. "Clean closure," in which all coal ash is excavated and the ash pond area is returned to a non-erosive and stable condition;

3. "Hybrid closure," in which ash and ash-affected soil is consolidated into as small of an area as feasible within the ash pond footprint, to be placed under a cover system. The remaining ash pond area would be returned to a non-erosive and stable condition; or

4. "Other," which must be "equally or more effective at protecting water quality than the other closure options," the draft legislation said.

"The proposed closure method must demonstrate that where groundwater is degraded, restoration to the level of the groundwater standards will be obtained as is economically and technically feasible," the proposed legislation states.

Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for DENR, said ponds could also be converted to dry fly ash handling, in which dry coal ash is stored within a synthetic liner.

The governor's office said the state would prioritize the closures based on 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.

McCrory's office said the plan would 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, the office said.

The plan would close loopholes that currently exempt utilities from landfill requirements when ash is removed from impoundments and would apply the state's solid waste protections for landfills when coal ash is used as a structural fill in large-scale projects, according to the announcement.

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, which begins in May.

In the wake of the Dan River spill, environmentalists criticized DENR for a slow response to the spill and for failures to enforce environmental regulations. Amy Adams, N.C. campaign coordinator for Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, expressed skepticism about the plan on Wednesday.

"The governor's press release offers little to ease the concerns of citizens who demand long-term solutions to coal ash pollution," Adams said in a statement. "Remember -- it was only last week that the McCrory-appointed Environmental Management Commission appealed a ruling giving DENR authority to take action on cleaning up coal ash.

"This administration seems to say one thing and do another," Adams said. "When the language of the proposed bill is released, the public will have a better idea if there is any substance to it, or if it's just another PR move."