Rewind six months ago to the tragic accident in Rockingham County that spilled 32,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. Coal ash is a by-product of coal-fired plants that produce electricity; and leachate from coal ash contains toxic metals and other hazardous substances. There are 14 coal-fired plants in North Carolina, including the one in Rockingham County, and around 30 or so other coal ash ponds and pits.
Environmental groups, bloggers, and advocacy journalists pounced: social media lit up with criticism of the Republican legislature and a flurry of fundraising emails squawked about how it was obviously all Governor Pat McCrory’s fault for not properly regulating coal ash ponds.
To hear them tell the story, the coal ash problem began when Republicans, who assumed control of state government for the first time in 140 years, could finally realize their nefarious dreams of destroying the environment — in this case, by poisoning the water supply.
It’s a convenient fundraising narrative in an election year. But as with everything in politics, there’s always another side to the story — and it’s one that’s conveniently forgotten by activists and not mentioned by our friends in the media.
Let’s rewind further back to 2006, when the state placed a moratorium on all new landfill permits. At the time, Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly, the Governor’s office, and the Department of Environmental Resources. So, what did the Democrats do? They specifically exempted hazardous coal ash basins from the new environmental controls. [See Session Law 2006-244; S353; Section 3(5)]
In 2007, when solid-waste regulations were tightened, what did the Democrats do? Then, they exempted hazardous coal ash pits yet again — allowing dangerous coal ash to be placed in unlined landfills. [See Session Law 2007-550; S1482; Section 8(b)(5)]
When the most catastrophic coal ash spill in the nation’s history occurred at a TVA facility in 2008 (spilling over 1.7 million tons of coal-ash) what did the Democrats do? Nada. Not a single bill on the coal ash crisis ever emerged from committee in the North Carolina General Assembly.
But last week, in a strong bipartisan vote, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 to finally deal with the problem at long last. The bill is a collaboration between the House and Senate, and members from both chambers worked proactively to create a comprehensive and sensible plan to address the threat of coal ash in every pond statewide. The bill’s chief architect was Representative Chuck McGrady, himself a national past president of the Sierra Club. No one in the entire legislature has better environmental bona fides.
The House coal ash bill creates the “Coal Ash Management Commission” to oversee the creation and implementation of coal ash cleanup plans across the state and it requires that every pond in North Carolina to be classified based upon priority for cleanup. A plan for closure of every coal ash pond is required by the end of 2018.
24 Democrats joined every single one of their Republican colleagues in the House to pass the historic legislation — the first-ever of its kind in the nation. But 17 legislators (all Democrats) voted against the bill, claiming that it didn’t go far enough or didn’t contain their own pet amendment.
And here’s the kicker: many of those same pearl-clutching holdouts who voted against the bill last week actually voted to exempt coal ash pits in the first place back in 2006 and 2007. That irony wasn’t lost on Speaker Thom Tillis, who spoke eloquently on the House floor last week in support of the bill. Listen to his remarks using the audio player below.
So, before we all get the vapors, let’s take a moment to look at this historic environmental legislation in its proper context: after 80 years of inaction, North Carolina is finally seeing some significant movement on coal ash. Pearls and all.