It's very true that the coal ash spill is hurting Tillis in the polls:North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis is making an unusual argument—for a Republican. In recent weeks, he's accused his Democratic opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan, of sabotaging critical environmental regulations because of her "cozy relationship" with a powerful energy company. At the same time, Tillis has trumpeted his own role in fighting for what he claims are tough new rules that will clean up the coal industry.
But North Carolina environmentalists say he's full of it. "That's pretty bold, as a line of attack, considering the environmental record he's got," says DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The back-and-forth is the latest skirmish in the political war over one of the worst environmental disasters in the state's history. In February, a toxic waste dump at one of Duke Energy's coal-fired power plants ruptured and belched up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. Thousands of people lost access to drinking water, and the river was polluted with toxins like lead and arsenic. In response to the disaster, Tillis—who leads the state's GOP-controlled House of Representatives—is pushing legislation that ostensibly tightens regulation of Duke's remaining coal ash pits. But critics say the bill as written would actually leave North Carolina even more vulnerable to future spills than it already is.
Tillis and Hagan have both taken large donations from Duke Energy—an energy giant and the largest utility company in the state—and as the election nears, they are blasting each other's environmental records. But North Carolina green groups are laser-focused on Tillis. They rush to point out that, under his leadership, Republicans passed a budget that kneecapped the state's water quality regulators. Moves like that have earned him a League of Conservation Voters rating of 26 percent. (Hagan has a lifetime rating of 84 percent.) Public Policy Polling, a liberal firm, recently released a poll showing that North Carolina voters overwhelmingly disapprove of Tillis' handling of the new coal ash regulations. And earlier this month, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters unleashed a $1 million battery of negative ads accusing Tillis of doing nothing to prevent the next Dan River disaster.
In fact, environmentalists view the coal ash bill supported by Tillis as a step backwards in the regulation of toxic coal waste. On Friday, the SELC warned that the legislation "inexplicably attempts to weaken our state's existing groundwater protection laws in favor of Duke Energy."
"Where do you want me to start?" asked Mary Maclean Asbill, an SELC lobbyist. "There are a million things wrong with this bill."
For example, she says, Duke Energy maintains 33 coal ash dumps at 14 coal-fired power plants across the state. Duke's own records show that many of them have leaked contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and selenium. But the bill as written would only require Duke to close pits at four of its power plants—pits that Duke has already offered to clean up. At some of the remaining sites, Duke could simply cover the pits instead of emptying them, which means they could still pose a threat to waterways. "We always wanted a bill that requires full and complete closure of these sites and moves the coal ash to dry, lined landfills," Asbill says.
Environmental groups also argue that the House bill, backed by Tillis, is significantly weaker than an earlier version passed by the Senate. House Republicans blew a hole through deadlines that the Senate bill established for cleaning up the coal ash ponds, making it easier for energy companies to request additional time to comply with new rules. "The House bill basically says, 'Meet this deadline, except if it's going to take longer, it's going to be hard, or it's going to cost more money,'" says Asbill. Even Senate Republicans oppose the change. (The bill is currently in a conference committee, where negotiators are working to reconcile the differences between the two versions.) - Mother Jones, 7/31/14
And North Carolina voters want action:Three-quarters of North Carolinians -- of all political affiliations -- don't think the state legislature has done enough to address Duke Energy's recent coal ash spill into the Dan River.
That's the finding of a poll of 519 North Carolina voters released today by the NC League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV). The environmental advocacy group has undertaken a $1 million coal ash campaign that includes TV ads criticizing state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) for failing to take adequate action to protect the environment and Duke Energy's ratepayers. The survey was conducted July 25 and 26 by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling (PPP).
Tillis is currently running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who was the keynote speaker for the NCLCV's recent annual Green Tie Awards dinner honoring state lawmakers and others who've taken action to protect North Carolina's environment.
The PPP poll, which was conducted last week, also found that voters overwhelmingly think:
Duke Energy should clean up the coal ash left in the Dan. A solid 80 percent of voters surveyed say Duke Energy should have to clean up the 36,000 tons of toxic ash that remain in the Dan River out of the approximately 39,000 tons spilled. That includes 89 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Republicans, and 72 percent of independents. Only 13 percent of voters surveyed think the spill cleanup has been adequate. The state has lifted a ban on swimming in the river, but environmentalists have raised concerns about potential health threats from the remaining coal ash, which contains potent toxins including arsenic, lead and mercury.
* Lawmakers need to get coal ash away from waterways. The poll found that 76 percent of North Carolina voters think the General Assembly should require all coal ash ponds to be moved from waterways compared to just 16 percent who say they should be allowed to be covered and remain in place. The Coal Ash Management Act (SB 729) currently being worked out in a legislative conference committee would require immediate cleanup and removal of only four of Duke Energy's 33 coal ash ponds across the state.
* Duke Energy -- not its ratepayers -- should foot the coal ash cleanup bill. An overwhelming 82 percent of North Carolina voters are concerned and 71 percent are very concerned about the legislature passing a bill that doesn't require Duke Energy to pay for the cleanup of the company's coal ash ponds, instead allowing the costs to be passed on to Duke's customers. In all, 90 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans, and 75 percent of independents are concerned about this.
The poll found that the coal ash spill is hurting Tillis politically, with 63 percent saying the handling of the disaster has made them less favorable toward him, compared to only 19 percent who approve of his efforts. In all, 51 percent of North Carolina voters disapprove of Tillis' handling of environmental issues in general, compared to only 20 percent who approve. NCLCV is currently asking supporters to call Tillis and urge him to use his leadership to craft a stronger bill. - Southern Strategies, 7/28/14
But wish in one hand, shit in the other:Current coal ash legislation, which followed Duke Energy’s disastrous Dan River coal ash spill in February, does not require Duke Energy to remove coal ash from unlined storage ponds in the state by set deadlines if the cleanup is deemed too expensive.
The legislation does not mandate that Duke pay for clean up at all, shifting the cost burden onto ratepayers. It requires that only four out 33 coal ash ponds be removed from unlined storage pits near waterways. The other 29 could potentially be capped off and left in place, which environmentalists believe could threaten drinking water.
Duke Energy is cleaning up after the 36,000 tons of coal ash remaining from the Dan River spill; 80 percent of those polled feel that is the right course of action.
80 percent also think state lawmakers should force Duke Energy to clean up all of its coal ash sites, moving the toxic waste away from water sources and into safe containment facilities.
"Time is of the essence to contact legislators and let them know to fix the coal ash bill before going home," said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for the environmental group North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.
"The people have spoken and it is clear to all that the current edition of the (coal ash) bill does not do enough to protect our drinking water." - Indy Week, 7/28/14
And it's all thanks to the GOP State Legislature:State lawmakers essentially completed their work for the short legislative session but have not come to an agreement on coal ash clean up.
Heading into the session in May, all indications were that coal ash was a top priority. But figuring out the details proved to be difficult.
Late on Thursday night, as senators prepared to head home, the final decision was made on whether or not coal ash would be decided during the short legislative session.
The Senate rules chairman made a procedural move that ended all hopes for debate on the bill. Some House negotiators say they were disappointed.
"We had a lot of good options on the table yesterday. We were trying to work together. We got at an impasse on one option, and the Senate was in a hurry to get out last night, and we ran out of time," said Rep. Ruth Samuelson.
But the Senate is firmly pointing the finger at the House as to why no negotiated plan was agreed to.
"We had a strong Senate bill, a fairly weak House bill, and when we got to conference, instead of us being able to work out those differences between the two bills, and come out with a good strong bill, we had these House members offer up a provision that had not been vetted, that we were having some real difficulty understanding the consequence of," said Sen. Phil Berger. - Time Warner Cable News, 8/4/14
Click here if you want to donate and get involved with Senator Kay Hagan's (D. NC) re-election campaign:Both House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said before the session began that a coal ash bill was a top priority and senators especially were talking tough about forcing Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash ponds.
The Senate and House passed different coal bills, and despite the tough talk, both fall well short of what’s needed to address the environmental damage being caused by the 33 ash ponds at 14 locations across the state, all of which are leaking into the groundwater.
Neither bill bans Duke Energy from passing the cost of the cleanup on to ratepayers. That’s not much of a shock considering the lobbying power and campaign contributions of the company, but it’s astounding that the House and Senate couldn’t even agree on which weak bill to pass.
It’s the biggest environmental disaster in a generation in North Carolina. The public is demanding a response and Republicans who control the House and Senate and governor’s office can’t come up with one, even a weak one.
The harshest public words between the House and Senate came during the heated budget negotiations but if you are looking for evidence of acrimony and division among Republicans, the floundering coal ash debate is the most telling. - Robesonian, 8/4/14