RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's governor says he will propose new legislation aimed at strengthening government oversight of coal ash dumps following the massive spill at a Duke Energy plant that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge.
Gov. Pat McCrory said Wednesday that his plan would result in the "conversion or closure" of the dumps and close legal loopholes that allowed the nation's largest electricity company to avoid cleaning up groundwater contamination leaching from unlined ash pits at 14 coal-fired power plants across the state.
But environmental groups quickly criticized the governor's plan, which would not require Duke to move its leaky coal ash dumps away from rivers and lakes.
McCrory declined to discuss key details about his proposal at an event in Raleigh on Wednesday, but called it "innovative" and "aggressive." The governor said his plan would address an issue unresolved for decades.
"I'm proud to be the administration that has a plan that we've put forward," McCrory said. "There's no doubt major legislation action ... needs to be taken."
McCrory said he will propose adding more employees at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to ensure dam inspections statewide are done on a more routine basis. Positions at the state agency have been cut sharply in recent years.
Environmentalists are pushing McCrory's administration to use what they say is the state's existing legal authority to require Duke to haul more than 100 million tons of the toxic ash away from waterways to lined landfills licensed to handle hazardous waste. Coal ash contains numerous chemicals that are harmful to people and wildlife, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
In a letter to the state last month, Duke CEO Lynn Good said the company would remove the ash from its dumps at the Dan River plant and another plant while the company studies options at its remaining sites. Among those options is draining contaminated water from the pits and then covering the remaining ash with soil and giant tarps.
"Duke Energy looks forward to working constructively with the governor, lawmakers and regulators to determine the best coal ash management policies for North Carolina," company spokesman Dave Scanzoni said Wednesday. "Duke Energy has proposed a comprehensive ash management plan with both near-term and long-term actions that will address all retired sites, as well as pond management at active sites, in an environmentally sound way."
McCrory's written proposal, a copy of which was released Wednesday evening, would provide Duke with at least three options: remove the ash, cover the ash and leave it in place, or a combination of the two.
"This plan recognizes there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for the 33 coal ash ponds in North Carolina," said Josh Ellis, McCrory's spokesman. "The governor's preference is that these ponds are moved. The end result will be moving many, if not all, coal ash ponds. That will be a decision made by scientists and engineers based on what is most environmentally sound."
McCrory, a Republican, worked for Duke Energy more than 28 years prior to retiring to run for governor. The company and its employees have remained generous political supporters to McCrory's campaign and groups that support him.
Peter Harrison, a lawyer with the environmental group WaterKeeper Alliance, said McCrory's plan largely adopts Duke's position when it comes to removing the coal ash away from waterways.
"The governor has left plenty of room for Duke to do nothing more than empty the water out of its ash ponds and cover them with dirt," Harrison said. "This approach is unacceptable because it would allow these toxic dumps to continue leaking and poisoning our rivers and groundwater supplies with toxic heavy metals for many years to come."
Also on Wednesday, N.C. Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway denied a motion from Duke asking for a stay of his March 6 ruling finding that current state law gives state regulators direct authority to require Duke to clean up its coal ash pollution. The state Environmental Management Commission said last week it will join Duke in appealing Ridgeway's ruling.
McCrory appointed eight of the commission's 15 members. His staff has denied the governor played any role in the board's decision to side with Duke on the issue, but also declined to say whether he agreed with the action taken by his appointees.
Federal prosecutors have issued at least 23 subpoenas seeking records and grand jury testimony as part of a criminal investigation into the state's oversight of Duke's coal ash dumps. McCrory has denied that his administration gave any special treatment to his former employer.