RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina will offer less expensive ways for Duke Energy to clean up coal ash pits at seven sites while ensuring drinking water is piped to residents near the ponds, a compromise that has appeased the General Assembly but leaves plant neighbors uneasy.
Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday signed a bill to allow Duke Energy to dry out the watery pits at half of Duke's 14 sites and close them in place rather than excavating the toxic residue, as long as it supplies drinking water by October 2018 to neighbors of power plants where ash is stored.
The new law marks a resolution, in part, to clashes between the governor and General Assembly about how Duke Energy should clean up hazardous residue at the sites that McCrory's Department of Environmental Quality determined in May should be removed by 2024. The department and Duke Energy both asked lawmakers to change the law to allow less costly options.
Earlier in the session, McCrory vetoed another bill that would have reinstated a state Coal Ash Management Commission approved in 2014 that he didn't like and sued over. Legislators had created the commission to monitor the activities of state environmental regulators and Duke Energy, where McCrory previously worked for nearly 30 years.
The compromise eliminates the commission and requires the company to supply plant neighbors with safe drinking water by October 2018.
"The previous bill only required a plan to provide water connections with no deadline for actually installing them and it had no requirements for fixing dams or recycling coal ash," McCrory said in a statement. "The new law protects the environment while also protecting consumers from higher electricity prices."
The nation's largest electric company also must repair dams around some pits.
Environmental groups and homeowners who live near the plants say the final compromise ignores public hearings and thousands of public comments to DEQ about how the cleanups would occur. Some have suggested it was designed to get Duke Energy out of potentially $10 billion in costs to excavate the ash from more than 30 ponds at all 14 sites.
"Every one of Duke Energy's coal ash sites is contaminating groundwater," North Carolina Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins said in a statement Friday. "Rather than requiring coal ash to be fully cleaned up in all communities, the governor today signed into law a measure to let his former employer avoid responsibility by leaving toxic ash in place."
Duke Energy has said the coal ash is not polluting water supplies. People living near the plants are worried their groundwater is polluted by arsenic, chromium and other hazardous elements. Some Goldsboro homeowners who live near the HF Lee Plant say the state is sending mixed messages about the level of safety.
"They had ranked everything high-risk and were going to clean it up," said Sara Mullens, who said she has lived on the land for more than 20 years and would receive water from Duke under the new agreement. "I feel this is a band-aid, giving us this water to hush us up. The water's still going to be contaminated."
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