RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Legislative leaders on Tuesday moved forward with a plan to reconstitute a state commission to oversee the cleanup of North Carolina's coal ash pits, setting up another potential power struggle with Gov. Pat McCrory.
The bill approved by the House Rules Committee also would set aside more time to decide whether all of the pits need to be excavated and moved.
McCrory, whose administration shuttered the former Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court ruled in January that lawmakers had too much control over the panel's work, threatened to veto the bill if the entire General Assembly passes it in its current form.
McCrory general counsel Bob Stephens argued that the plan to reconstitute the commission is still unconstitutional and said more litigation would follow if the measure became law.
"My message is, let's don't relive history here," Stephens told the committee. "We know what happened the first time."
The legislation, which has the support of both Senate and House Republicans, gives the governor five of the seven positions on the revived commission, although the five would be subject to General Assembly confirmation. The House speaker and Senate leader would appoint the other two. An attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore disagreed with Stephens and said the panel complied with the Supreme Court's ruling.
The commission would still essentially look over the shoulder of Department of Environmental Quality regulators deciding how best to clean up more than 30 pits maintained by Duke Energy and associated with coal-fired power plants. But the commission would no longer be directed to act independently of McCrory even though it sits in a Cabinet agency of the governor.
"The governor's appointments will always be in charge," Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson and the bill's manager, told House Rules Committee members. The measure was expected to clear one more committee Wednesday and head to the House floor.
The proposed panel would still make the final determinations on the level of risk the pits pose to the environment. The division last week said the pits were enough of a concern now that they all should be excavated and moved by 2024. Duke Energy said two years of such excavations would cost $10 billion to complete, with electricity customers paying the bills.
The state's business community is worried about the division's decisions on the pits. North Carolina Chamber CEO Lew Ebert wrote to legislative leaders Tuesday urging them to pass legislation that would open the door to less expensive cleanups that leave the ash in their current pits.
Duke Energy, the nation's largest utility, supports the measure, spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in an email Tuesday night. The company has wanted to leave ash in place at most of the pits.
Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which for years has wanted Duke to clean up the pits, called Tuesday's measure "the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy" and avoid a more strenuous cleanup.
The measure would extend the public comment period on proposed risk classifications until August.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart this month said there's already a path for Duke Energy to lower the risk classifications for some pits within 18 months if they make dam safety repairs. The department has asked the legislature for the ability to reclassify at that time.
The House bill also would give Duke Energy until August 2017 to work out how to help people living near the pits with questionable well water to locate a permanent drinking water supply, such as a hookup to a nearby public water system. Van der Vaart said the department already was poised to have such hookups completed within 18 months.
The original commission was constituted in 2014, months after a spill at a Duke Energy coal-ash pit along the Dan River. The department had said pollution from the pits is leaking into underground water deposits. Duke Energy said the ash is not polluting water supplies.