RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Pat McCrory's move to shut down a body created to oversee the cleanup of dozens of toxic coal-ash dumps across North Carolina makes him more closely responsible for the multi-billion-dollar task facing his former employer, an environmental lawyer said Friday.
Nearly two months after the state Supreme Court ruled the composition of Coal Ash Management Commission was illegal, McCrory's chief legal adviser told its chairman the body was considered dissolved. McCrory and the environmental agency that reports to him "are studying options to deal with coal ash management," the March 11 letter from Robert Stephens said.
"I think what the average person should conclude is that Gov. McCrory now owns North Carolina's coal ash crisis. He's reached out and grabbed it," said Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The group has sought for years to force Duke Energy and environmental regulators to clean up the residue left after decades of burning coal for electricity.
The state Supreme Court ruled in January that the General Assembly usurped McCrory's executive powers by letting legislative leaders appoint most of the coal ash commission's members. But the court didn't specifically address the commission's existence.
State lawmakers created the commission months after a big spill of liquefied coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant in 2014. McCrory worked for the nation's largest electric company for 29 years before retiring to run for governor in 2008. He lost, but won in 2012. He's up for re-election in November.
The commission was supposed to judge plans by the state Department of Environmental Quality of how best to close 32 pits at 14 powerplants suspected of leaking arsenic, heavy metals and other pollutants into groundwater and nearby rivers. Legislators didn't trust DEQ's oversight of Duke Energy. The company last year pleaded guilty to criminal violations of federal water pollution laws and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and remediation.
Senate leader Phil Berger, who lives near the Eden power plant where the coal ash spill happened in February 2014, described the commission as "an independent barrier between (McCrory's) administration and former employer."
McCrory's office described Stephens' letter disbanding the commission as administrative.
"It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. It, therefore, no longer existed and could conduct no work. You don't have to 'disband' an entity that no longer exists," spokesman Graham Wilson wrote in an email. He didn't respond when asked why the move was delayed until days before this week's primary elections.
Spokesmen for Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore didn't say what legislators would do next. Coal Ash Commission chairman Michael Jacobs didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
DEQ this month is holding public meetings where neighbors of coal-ash pits can comment on the agency's plans to excavate and remove waste from basins at four plant sites before 2020. Those were already required by the 2014 coal-ash law, the first of its kind in the country. The question is how many of the remaining unlined pits will be drained of excess water and closed off. Environmentalists warn they could be a toxic legacy of the state's waterways for decades.
Duke Energy wants to pass along the costs, estimated at about $4 billion, to electricity customers.