CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's attorney general said Wednesday that Duke Energy's coal ash pits must be cleaned up to protect the state's waterways, but the costs shouldn't be passed along to consumers through higher utility rates.
The state Senate is considering legislation that would require Duke by 2029 to remove its 100 million tons of coal ash now stored in 33 unlined pits across the state or seal it in place.
The legislation proposed by Senate leader Phil Berger and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca comes four months after a massive spill at a Duke plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
They said their legislation would give North Carolina a solid framework for phasing out the creation and disposal of coal ash in the state.
Duke has expressed concern about the proposed legislation. The nation's largest electric company has said it could take decades and cost up to $10 billion if it's forced to remove the ash, with most of the costs passed along to the company's ratepayers.
But in a letter to lawmakers, Attorney General Roy Cooper said the $50 billion company should pay for the cleanup - not ratepayers. And Cooper said he'd fight any legislation that allowed Duke to pass along those costs.
"Consumers shouldn't foot the bill to clean up coal ash. Many families and businesses are already struggling and simply can't afford to pay more for power while utilities continue to earn high profits," Cooper said. "Coal ash must be cleaned up to protect our water and the utility can afford to pay for it more than consumers can."
This isn't the first time Cooper, a Democrat, has said he'd oppose any effort to pass coal ash clean up to consumers. His office has previously challenged rate increases by the Utilities Commission he's labeled as too high.
Cooper says he's planning a gubernatorial run in 2016 but hasn't announced he's in. If he runs, he'd face Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke for more than 28 years.
McCrory has criticized Cooper for saying the attorney general would fight Duke if the Charlotte-based company tried to charge customers for cleanup.
As Cooper released his statement, word came of more problems with Duke's pits.
The state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources said Wednesday it issued Duke a notice of deficiency for leaky pipes at the company's Weatherspoon plant in Lumberton.
The state environmental agency said it's also requiring Duke to provide an engineer's assessment for piping systems in coal ash dams in Wilmington and Asheville. No major leaks were discovered at those plants.
Meanwhile, two North Carolina congressional leaders released a letter Wednesday urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for tougher standards regarding storage and disposal of coals ash.
The letter by Democrats U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and David Price was co-signed by 83 members of Congress. They pressed for stricter standards and enforcement under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by year's end.
"It appears we are only now beginning to see the alarming truth about coal ash in our communities," they wrote. "It is troubling that it has taken large coal ash spills like those in North Carolina and Tennessee to mobilize stakeholders to engage in a frank dialogue about its dangers and propose changes to mitigate those hazards. Those catastrophes could have been avoided and we owe it to all Americans to put the necessary safeguards in place to ensure similar disasters do not occur in the future."
Follow AP correspondent Mitch Weiss at Twitter.com/mitchsweiss