North Carolina’s decision to pass the Coal Ash Management Act on Wednesday makes it one of the first states to pass a bill that is a clean sweep effort to confront the hazardous environmental effects of coal ash dumps. The decision came mere days before the Republican-led Legislature ended their session.
This new bill will create the Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the assessment, planning and clean-up of all coal ash ponds across the state. These ponds will be assessed and grouped into one of three classifications based on their inherent risk to the water supply surrounding them. Any pond deemed “high-risk” will be required to be cleaned by 2019.
The bill must still be signed into action by Governor Pat McCrory before it will become law, and many environmental groups have already doubted its strength, calling it a weak remedy to the underlying issues. The bill will affect more than 30 coal ash dumps across the state containing over 100 million tons of coal ash.
Even though doubts exist, legislators still support the bill and hope to move forward with its implementation. State Representative Joe Sam Queen stated, “It may not be perfect, but it is a solid step forward.”
Earlier this year, North Carolina’s Superior Court ruled that the state can require “immediate action” to clean up coal ash dumps that have caused groundwater contamination. The bill also allows “low-risk” dumps to be capped with plastic sheeting and dirt, and also can require energy companies to move low-lying dumps if they are seen as a significant risk to groundwater sources.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, “allowing coal ash to be left in unlined, leaking pits across North Carolina with documented groundwater contamination at each site is not a cleanup plan nor does it protect the people of North Carolina.” They continue to state, “Many sites across the country where coal ash has been covered up or ‘capped’ in place continue to experience high levels of toxic pollution. Covering up coal ash and calling sites ‘closed’ does not stop or clean up pollution.”
Coal ash is known to contain trace amounts of arsenic and selenium, among other metals that can be toxic in high concentrations, making it a significant concern of environmental experts. The ash, which is placed into waste ponds and open-air pits is a toxic by-product of burning coal.
According to the Sierra Club, the U.S. produces 140 million tons of coal ash pollution every year. “Without this legislation, coal ash would have remained essentially unregulated, an untenable position for North Carolina residents,” states Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. “Still, today’s action does not go far enough to prevent more contamination of our treasured water resources.”