Exile on Jones Street: Sometimes what’s unsaid speaks loudest

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by Kirk Ross

Scan10001aLast month, going into yet another update for legislators on the Dan River coal-ash spill there was some optimism that the meeting would result in some kind of consensus on coal-ash legislation in the upcoming short session, which starts next week.

There was plenty of talk and some degree of consensus afterward that something ought to be done, but it was drowned out by the silence.

Make no mistake, there will be legislation. Democrats in the House and Senate led in part by Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro already have the outline of a bill and are in the drafting process.

Henderson County Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady,  a former national president of the Sierra Club, and Senate Rules Committee chair Tom Apodaca, also of Henderson County, are working on another package. That bill is likely to include language to allow for quick work on sites on the French Broad and Catawba rivers where both legislators have called for a cleanup.

Then there’s the governor’s proposal, which came out ahead of the meeting and does not seem to be getting much traction.

While proponents of all three potential pieces of legislation say that in the current climate they expect the legislature to at least take a look at them, the amount of inertia and the silence of their colleagues is not a good sign that any of the three plans has a chance of becoming law.

After the meeting, there was no upbeat statement from the House and Senate leadership on a potential solution and a combative response from the governor who said he wanted to take the lead on a solution and was characteristically bristly over criticisms of his plan.

He has since sent a firm signal that times are changing by selling his Duke stock even though it is paying a really nice dividend these days.

I would like to be wildly off-base in saying this, but my guess is that in the end the legislature’s response to one of the largest coal ash spills in the country and the revelation about groundwater contamination at dozens of sites around the state will be to boldly call for more study.

There are several reasons for this, some that are very simple and many that are not.

Let’s start with cost. Duke Energy officials have offered a wide range of costs based on potential options along with a vague commitment to do the most environmental friendly, lowest cost thing. Or something like that. The highest number on the chart with big numbers they handed us at the meeting in April was $10 billion, so naturally the headlines the next day and the number stuck in everyone’s head is $10 billion.

Duke has also shown it’s going to play hardball on cost recovery, which is the polite term for sticking it to ratepayers. The recent protest at the company’s annual meeting may have put some heat on Duke to pass the cost on to shareholders, but that is not exactly something that jumps to mind when you think of large, investor-owned utilities.

At best, Duke might ask shareholders to cover the tip, but they’re not going to cover the tab. Regardless, stay tuned for a hell of a rate hearing at the state utilities commission.

Then, there’s timing. Word around Capital City is that it’ll be a short short session partly because the US Open starts in Pinehurst in the second week in June (not kidding!) and partly because it is, after all, an election year and there’s that little ethics rule that says you can’t raise money during session.

That will leave precious little time to negotiate anything resembling a comprehensive agreement on an enormously complex issue.

The likely route is an agreement to study the potential solutions and kick the can down the road to the next General Assembly.

There is at least some possibility of a remedy for at least some, if not all, of the four sites deemed most critical, including removal of ash from the Dan River site. But with the company’s many and powerful friends in the legislature as yet unenthusiastic about taking on a corporate giant which is used to having its way on Jones Street, it’s hard to see them not opting to just run out the clock and go watch some golf.