RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Lawmakers took the first step in pushing back a deadline related to Duke Energy's requirement to recycle coal ash from some of its storage facilities on Thursday.
Members of the North Carolina Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee voted Thursday to re-write a bill previously passed by the House of Representatives. Among the new language added to the bill was a provision striking a requirement for Duke Energy to identify a third coal ash pond to be excavated and recycled into concrete.
Currently, Duke is required to identify a third plant by July 1, just weeks from now.
Senator Rick Gunn (R-Alamance), who chaired yesterday's committee meeting at which the vote was taken, said the substitute bill was offered by Senator Trudy Wade (R-Guilford).
Audio of meetings held in the room where the committee met Thursday are not streamed online and details of the meeting are not made publicly available so it is unclear why House Bill 374, which passed the House as a bill entitled "2017 DOL Technical Changes" was re-written.
Wade has not responded to a request from WBTV to provide an explanation for why she re-wrote a bill to change a deadline for Duke Energy just weeks before the company would have been required to act.
In 2016, the General Assembly approved a bill that, among other things, required Duke to identify three coal ash storage facilities that would be excavated and whose coal ash would be recycled for use in concrete.
The legislation required Duke to identify two facilities that would be excavated and recycled by January 2017 and a third facility by July 1, 2017.
In January, Duke said it would build recycling facilities at the Buck Steam Station near Salisbury and the Lee Steam Station near Goldsboro.
A third facility has not been named by the company. Language approved by the Senate committee on Thursday would reportedly give the committee an extra year to identify a third facility, contingent on a study to determine the economic viability of recycling coal ash into concrete.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy said the company did not request the legislature alter the coal ash recycling requirements and added the company was committed to excavating and recycling coal ash at the Buck and Lee facilities and has already begun the work to start that process. She said the company would follow the law with regards to excavating and recycling coal ash at a third facility.
Gunn did not return multiple calls seeking an explanation for why the language to ease the coal ash recycling rules was introduced in Thursday's committee meeting. It remains unclear whether the language was introduced by Gunn or another senator.
Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins questioned the timing of Thursday's developments, noting the proposed change to the law comes just weeks before Duke would be required to commit to excavating and recycling coal as at a third facility.
He pointed out that power companies in South Carolina have had success recycling coal ash.
"Santee Cooper, where this is being done near Myrtle Beach, has said that this is cost effective, it is economically beneficial and it certainly removes the risk of the coal ash," Perkins said.
Duke Energy's coal ash ponds have been at the center of controversy for years as watchdogs and neighbors who live near the facilities have accused the ponds of contaminating wells used for drinking water.
The 2016 legislation requiring Duke to recycle its coal ash at three facilities also required Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative source of drinking water for residents who live within a half mile of coal ash ponds by 2018.
But a WBTV investigation in June 2016 found some residents who live outside the half-mile radius of the Cliffside Steam Station in Cleveland County still had elevated levels of a toxic chemical associated with coal ash in their well water.
Duke disputes that its coal ash ponds contaminate any drinking water well.
Perkins said excavating coal ash ponds and recycling the ash into concrete is the best way to eliminate any possible risk the ponds might pose to drinking water.
"Excavating the coal ash and putting it into concrete is much cheaper than taking it to another lined landfill somewhere. It also removes the material that can, and what models show, will continue to leach into ground water and drinking what reservoirs," Perkins said. "The best thing is to return these areas to how they used to be, get that coal ash into concrete and infrastructure for a booming region."
Records posted online by the Senate Clerk's Office late Thursday show the re-written bill was referred back to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will either sit until the end of the session or be approved to move to a full vote in the Senate.
If the bill passes the full Senate, it will have to be re-approved by a vote in the House.
Thursday's re-write of HB374 came as lawmakers in both chambers were scrambling to finish hammering out a final budget. Lawmakers are expected to announce details of the final budget compromise as early as Monday.
This story has been updated to reflect additional information about the committee's vote made available by the Senate Clerk's office late Thursday.