The party's House and Senate members laid out the framework of legislation they intend to introduce when the General Assembly reconvenes its budget-adjustment session in May. They said Republicans in charge of the legislature should join them given last month's coal ash pond rupture adjoining Duke Energy's plant in Eden, spilling tons of ash into the Dan River. Recent tests show the water has elevated and unsafe levels of some heavy metals.
Democrats blamed state regulators for failing to push Duke Energy to clean up more than 30 ponds at 14 sites sooner and the utility for failing to be more proactive in moving the ash away from water sources.
"It's clear to me that what we have here in all of our coal ash ponds is a flawed design, compounded by flawed regulation and flawed enforcement," said Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard, who represents people living along the Dan River in Caswell County. Coal ash ponds also sit near two power plants in Person County, also in his district.
"It is time to get these things cleaned up," Woodard added.
GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have been addressing the spill and future plans for the ponds. A legislative commission focused on environmental matters discussed the spill and took testimony last month but didn't at its meeting Wednesday. Leaders of the Environmental Review Commission said they were waiting for more information from Duke and other interest groups. Still, it's unlikely GOP lawmakers would embrace the plan offered by the minority party in the legislature.
"The House is not going to offer a knee-jerk reaction on this important issue — it didn't happen overnight and the solution will take time to responsibly work through during the short session," said Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican who lives in Eden, asked the commission soon after the spill to examine coal ash issues. Two key Republican lawmakers last month also announced they would file legislation to clean out the ash dumps. Berger said in a release he was pleased to hear Democrats "finally speak up on this important issue after more than five weeks of silence."
The Democrats' plan also would seek to force Duke Energy to make the company and its shareholders pay for any statewide cleanup, not its customers or taxpayers. Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said last week Duke Energy will pay for the spill cleanup but suggested customers shoulder the cost of disposing what's in other ponds.
The Charlotte-based utility and its predecessor companies should be financially liable for a cleanup they knew was coming long ago, speakers at the Legislative Building news conference said. "A responsible corporation should take note of the coal ash issue decades ago, and not just put it aside and let it just sit there and hope that nothing bad will happen," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
McCrory has avoided taking a stand on who should pay, saying it's best decided by the state Utilities Commission. Roberts, in a statement, said "the idea that rate payers are going to pay the full burden for all of the sites is not on the table."
Berger called the Democrats' proposal to force Duke Energy to pay to clean up coal ash ponds a "radical change" because it would strip the Utilities Commission of ratemaking authority. He said the commission's Public Staff has effectively represented ratepayers in the past.
The proposal also demands that Duke Energy provide a cleanup plan for the Dan River and stop dumping coal ash in existing ponds, which would be closed, with their ashes inside move to lined landfills away from water sources.
Good wrote McCrory and state Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla on Wednesday laying out plans for the ponds. She said short-term goals include the permanent closure of coal ash ponds at Dan River and moving the ash away from the water. Ponds also would either be closed or their ash moved or stored more safely at three other plant locations.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, the Democratic plan's chief author, also said the proposal would repeal a 2013 provision passed by the General Assembly that critics say makes it harder to contain groundwater contamination at a waste dump.
The measure also would:
— establish standards for new lined landfills owned by utilities.
— restore funding to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for better monitoring of coal ash sites.
— direct the Environmental Review Commission to examine safety and contamination issues associated with alternate uses for coal ash.