Still from NCLCV Tillis coal ash ad
An environmental group has been running TV ads critical of North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis for failing to do enough to address Duke Energy's coal ash pollution -- and a new poll finds that most of the state's voters agree. (Image is a still from the NCLCV ad.)

Voter ire over handling of Duke Energy coal ash disaster transcends party politics

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.

"With a budget deal being struck, 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 NCLCV. "The people have spoken and it is clear to all that the current edition of the bill does not do enough to protect our drinking water."

PPP's latest poll on the Senate race, released last week, finds Hagan continuing to expand her lead over Tillis, with Hagan at 41 percent, Tillis at 34 percent, and Libertarian Sean Haugh at 8 percent. Hagan's seven-point lead over Tillis is up from two points in May and five points in June.

The NCLCV coal ash poll also found that the environment will play an important role in how North Carolinians vote this fall. In all, 90 percent of voters surveyed say environmental issues will be important to them when deciding how to vote, while 58 percent say that they will be "very important."

There's a consensus on the importance of the environment across the political spectrum, with 94 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of both Republicans and independents saying it would affect their voting decisions.

* Disclosure: Last year the author of this story was a recipient of the NCLCV's Green Tie Award for her environmental reporting.

Image: 
An environmental group has been running TV ads critical of North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis for failing to do enough to address Duke Energy's coal ash pollution -- and a new poll finds that most of the state's voters agree. (Image is a still from the NCLCV ad.)
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Ash clean up

The public is satisfied with the approach taken by the NC General Assembly. One thing is certain, with all the talk about ash cleanup, nobody talks about who pays for cleanup. If the survey were structured in that manner, the overwhelming response would be leave the ash in the basins if that means ratepayers have to pay for ash cleanup.

HUH?!? All the polls say

HUH?!? All the polls say otherwise, and lots of people are talking about who pays for the cleanup, a majority of them (us) saying the company should pay for it. The companies have pocketed the profits all these years rather than passing the savings along to ratepayers while telling the few that asked that the ash ponds were perfectly safe. For better or worse, consumers will almost certainly end up paying part of the cost of cleanup. For the McCronies to force the public to pay the whole cost, while not actually illegal, would most certainly be a crime.

What they say and what they do.....

Sure everybody is saying that but when the rubber meets the road it always ends up being the ratepayer paying for additional utility costs according to agreements with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. If that can't be settled ahead of time, I'd prefer to leave the ash in the basins and just repair the leaky pipes.

Coal Ash Solution

It's time to tax coal ash so coal burners are motivated to use technology to eliminate coal ash entirely. Let's say a tax of $10 per ton of coal ash is levied on every coal-fired plant in the US. With 140,000,000 tons of coal ash per year being produced, about 90,000,000 million tons is being buried and stored for later disposal (fill), while the rest (about 45,000,000 tons) is being used in concrete and other products.

Do the math. That 90 million tons/year generates 900 million dollars of tax that can be used to clean up the mess that's being made by the current coal ash disposal. Better yet, coal fired plants can use plasma-arc vitrification systems - the same being used on the newest US Aircraft carriers - to vitrify the ash so it is reduced by 95% or more into an insert glass. And if the technology to gasify the coal ash is adopted, it may be possible to recover some of the wasted energy for steam, which in turn generates electricity - - and guess what? That process negates the "Coal Ash Tax", provides electricity to consumers, keeps our environment clean, and generates revenue for the coal-fired plant - - all at a much lower cost than hauling and storing the ash as being done now.

So here's the plan. All coal ash produced by US coal-burning energy plants will be taxed at a rate of $10 per ton. At the rate of 140,000,000 tons per year generated in the US, the coal ash tax potentially generates $1.4 billion per year that would be held in an environment cleanup trust fund, controlled by publicly elected representatives living in communities near coal ash disposal sites, much like your mayors and sheriffs. If the coal ash disposal site is located within a flood plain or near a waterway, the coal tax would be doubled to a rate of $20 per ton.

"Motivators" that qualify as waivers to escape the coal ash tax are simple. First, the coal ash tax is waived on ash that is recycled for building materials, which currently averages 40% at typical US coal-fired plants. Of the 140,000,000 tons currently produced each year in the US, about 56,000,000 tons are reused in building materials. That brings the Coal Ash Tax Trust Fund (let's call it the CATT Fund) down to an annual potential of $840,000,000 for the coal ash that's being disposed in landfills. But if a landfill or holding area (e.g., pond) is on a flood plain or within 500 yards of a waterway, an additional tax of $10 per ton is levied on ash disposed in those sites. For round numbers, let's assume the CATT Fund will collect $1 billion in taxes annually for the mix of disposal sites being used.

At a $1 billion in taxes, one would think energy companies will be motivated to eliminate coal ash altogether. Their second option is to apply a technology that was developed, tested and is being implemented by the US Department of Defense. A very-high-temperature process known as plasma-arc waste destruction is currently being installed on the next-generation of US Navy aircraft carriers. These plasma-arc systems can be optimized for a variety of waste streams. For coal ash, a plasma-arc system can be packaged to vitrify and gasify about 98% of the coal ash currently being buried in landfills. That's roughly 82,000,000 tons of coal ash that can be kept out of your waterways and nearby landfills using a very affordable alternative to landfills.

So what do you do with the remaining 2,000,000 tons that's left each year from plasma-arc vitrification? This glassy-like residual material is an inert binder of minerals that traps traces of formerly toxic residuals, which can also be used for building materials beyond the current concrete and gypsum use. But there are dozens of other potential and high-value uses, particularly if you are a ceramics engineer who can add certain ingredients to the molten glass as it pours out of the plasma-arc vitrification system. How about amorphous photovoltaic cells? It's possible.

The third motivator for energy companies using coal-fired plants is research and development derived from a 10% portion of the CATT Fund. Qualified companies would be able to propose R&D projects and receive matching funds to achieve greater efficiencies in coal ash elimination or improve processes, such as using a plasma-arc vitrification system to generate synthetic gas that can drive a turbine generator. If a company's coal ash elimination R&D project is successfully demonstrated and implemented, the company would be reimbursed from the CATT Fund's R&D portion.

In summary, neither energy companies nor their electricity customers would have to pay a cent of coal ash tax if all of the coal ash is reused for building materials, eliminated with technology such as a plasma-arc system or converted to energy by yet-discovered processes via CATT Fund.

So how do we as citizens put the Coal Ash Tax on our November ballots? It's probably too late in most towns. But if you're serious about a Coal Ash Tax that would inspire energy companies to keep your water and land clean, there's a way to make it happen. Vote for candidates like Thom Tillis who pledge to support the coal ash tax - - but make them draft the legislation before the elections so you can read it and you know they're serious about starting the effort on their first day in office.

Beware of candidates (like Kay Hagen) who tell you a coal ash tax is not the solution; this means they don't have a plan to stop coal ash from being buried in your backyards, and it means they don't have a clue about harnessing existing technology to eliminate coal ash. Your vote for the right candidate could begin to eliminate all the coal ash in your community during that candidate's term. In a few years, coal ash could be something we had to live with before American voters got involved.

A coal ash tax again is just

A coal ash tax again is just another burden placed on ratepayers and as ratepayer myself, I hereby reject your suggestion. The goal needs to minimize costs on the consumers. It would be my preference to leave the ash in the basins and repair any broken pipes as they occur.

Of course end users

Of course end users ultimately pay all costs of production, as well as increasingly obscene profits to the absentee owners. (I can't help but suspect that Mr. Burns is one of them.) The question is whether we want to pay the costs up front, where they amount to mere money and are relatively small, or later, when they become widespread death and destruction.

Storing ash in the basins is

Storing ash in the basins is an acceptable mode of handling the product. That being the case, of course Duke will pass on any costs for cleanup to the rate payers. The problem that started this entire discussion was a broken pipe. Let's just fix the broken pipes and leave the ash as is in the basins. I think if we took a sample of NC soil and ran a chemical analysis, we'd find the same constituents that we see in coal fly ash.

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