It’s unfortunate that it took 35,000 tons of coal ash being leaked into the Dan River to make environmental clean up a priority this session. But Senate Bill 279—“the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014”—makes a decent dent in the issue. Senators at a June 16th meeting of the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee were eager to parade their response to the Governor’s Coal Ash Plan.

Environmental groups in attendance also criticized SB 729. The bill sets out deadlines for coal ash dumps or “coal combustion residual surface impoundments” to be closed, based on priority level: high, intermediate and low.

Spokespeople for the Southern Environmental Law Center and NC WARN said that, while the legislation is a step in the right direction, the lack of required cleanup for coal ash impoundments and the potential for abuse of a “low-priority” designation were troubling. Only the Dan River Steam Station, Riverbend Steam Station, Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant and Sutton Plant’s impoundments are considered high-priority and must be closed by August 1, 2019.

“Intermediate” and “low-priority” impoundments must be closed by August 1, 2024 and 2029 respectively. But as Sen. Fletcher L. Hartsell, Jr., a Republican representing Cabarrus and Union counties, pointed out, there are no definition given for what constitutes high, intermediate or low given in the bill.

This is especially troubling, given that low-priority sites not only have their mandatory closing date 15 years down the road, but they do not need to be fully converted from wet impoundments and can be capped instead

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, called moving to clean up coal ash “one of the Senate’s top priorities.”

Apodaca also hinted that this legislation could be part of a larger push to a coal-free future—to be replaced by natural gas fracking.

“I would like to see the Asheville plant be all natural gas,” Apodaca said.

One of the main positives in the bill is the requirement for all coal plants to phase out production of wet coal ash by August 1, 2019.

Coal ash must also be kept in lined landfills after it has been leached. There is also a moratorium on the construction or expansion of coal ash landfills until August 1, 2015 to evaluate any risk they could have for surrounding communities.

Another change is that wet coal ash will now be considered “solid waste,” which opened up the floor for other senators to question why coal tar and asbestos, both of which are also accumulating in landfills and other impoundments around the state, are not labeled as “coal combustion residuals” in the bill, making them subject to the proposed regulations.

“Is coal tar not a coal combustion product?” Hartsell said.

Throughout the discussion of the bill, Apodaca repeatedly said one other goal of the bill is to find uses for coal ash to avoid putting it into landfills.

“There is not enough landfill space in North Carolina for all this coal ash,” Apodaca said.

Coal ash can be recycled as, among other things, concrete and asphalt. Senators at the hearing bristled as they said they have been trying to get the Department of Transportation to use coal ash for the past three years.