CORNELIUS – A Greenpeace and Charlotte Environmental Action message to N.C. Speaker of the House and Congressional candidate Thom Tills fell on deaf ears in the form of a locked door.

A handful of activists showed up at Tillis’ Cornelius campaign office July 17 in an attempt to present staff with a large fake check, made out to Thom Tillis for $10 billion and “signed” by Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good. 

The action calls into question what the groups feel is a weakening of a coal ash cleanup bill under Tillis’ House leadership to put it more in favor of the energy powerhouse. The amount, $10 billion, is Duke Energy’s estimation of what it would cost to clean up all of its sites if the bill required it.

“The $10 billion is what Duke Energy is saving by Speaker Tillis’ bill,” said Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Monica Embrey, calling its current state a “disaster piece of legislature.”

While both the state House and Senate agree something has to be done in the wake of the February Dan River coal ash spill, how each group is handling it differs. Recently, the N.C. Senate rejected the N.C. House bill, which reportedly extended the amount of time Duke Energy has to close the coal ash ponds as well as gives oversight to a coal ash commission in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources rather than in the Division of Emergency Management in the Department of Public Safety.

A compromise committee was formed.

Not answering any questions specific to Greenpeace’s allegations or Tillis’ opinion about the coal ash bill, Press Secretary Meghan Burris responded simply, “Greenpeace is more interested in scoring partisan political points in an election year than defending the environment.  If that wasn't the case, then they would be telling the true story – that (U.S. Sen.) Kay Hagan voted to allow the exemption for coal ash, and Thom Tillis is working as we speak to find both short-term fixes and long-term solutions to the problem that Hagan enabled.”

An article posted on Tillis’ campaign website the day before Greenpeace’s demonstration, claimed Hagan commonly sided with Duke Energy by voting to exempt coal ash from environmental regulations in 2006 and 2007.

Hagan’s Press Secretary Chris Hayden countered, “In an attempt to paper over his own efforts to gut groundwater protections, Speaker Tillis is misrepresenting legislation Kay voted for that actually increased regulation of landfills and was supported by environmental groups. On the other hand, Speaker Tillis last year passed a bill that secretly allowed Duke Energy to avoid paying for any costly cleanup from leaking coal ash ponds and has cut funding for state water pollution regulators.”

He said Hagan hopes the federal government will get involved with Environmental Protection Agency regulation and oversight to set a minimum standard.

Either way, the activist groups want to ensure something is done.

Citing the small size of the Dan River ash pond, Embrey said that spill was just a taste of what could happen. Plants on Lake Wylie and Lake Norman are much larger and could result in an environmental catastrophe, she said.

“We are calling for Duke Energy to remove the coal ash from all locations along water areas and put them in dry, lined facilities,” Embrey said.

She worries the state bill will only require capping them without actually cleaning them up or eliminating the potential water quality risks.

What’s more, Embrey said a provision should make it mandatory for Duke Energy not to pass on costs to ratepayers, since they have only committed to cleaning Dan River.

“Duke Energy continues to deliver on our promise that customers will not pay for costs associated with our response to the Dan River spill,” said Duke Energy Corporate Communications Specialist Jeff Brooks. “We will look to the N.C. Utilities Commission to determine how costs associated with the closure of ash basins are best handled. Ash basins are part of the normal operations of our coal-fired plants and their closure is part of the decommissioning process of those plants. We were developing closure plans for these sites prior to the incident at the Dan River Steam Station. In light of those events, we have taken a new look at those plans and are also closely watching legislation that will have an impact on those closure plans.”