March 19, 2016. An earlier post discussed the N.C. Supreme Court decision in McCrory v. Berger. In brief, the court ruled that laws giving the General Assembly power to appoint a majority of the members of the Coal Ash Management Commission (CAMC) and two other state commissions violated the N.C. Constitution’s provisions on separation of powers. (See the earlier post for more detail and a link to the court’s opinion.) The decision means the Coal Ash Management Commission cannot take any further action until the General Assembly amends the CAMC’s appointment statute to be consistent with the court’s decision and new appointments are made. The most likely solution would be to give the Governor power to appoint a majority of the members; the law could be amended as early as April of this year when the legislature convenes again.
Multiple news outlets have now reported that the McCrory administration has taken steps to effectively disband the Coal Ash Management Commission in advance of the April legislative session. The Charlotte Observer’s Bruce Henderson reported that the Governor’s Office informed CAMC executive director Natalie Birdwell that the commission is “no longer a legal entity”. The same Charlotte Observer article reports that the move by the Governor’s Office to shut down the commission’s work will dissolve contracts with independent experts retained by the commission to provide an outside review of the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) proposed risk classification of coal ash ponds.
A few observations about the Governor’s decision to shut down the Coal Ash Management Commission:
The Governor’s action wasn’t required by the decision in McCrory v. Berger. The court did not find anything unconstitutional in the creation of a Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee decisions on closure of coal ash ponds and coal ash disposal. The court only held the method of appointing CAMC members to be unconstitutional. The N.C. Supreme Court has found commission appointments statutes unconstitutional in the past and the solution has been to amend the statute to change the appointment scheme. In 1982, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in Wallace v. Bone that the General Assembly violated the N.C. Constitution’s separation of powers provisions by designating four seats on the N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC) for active members of the legislature. In response, the General Assembly amended the EMC appointments statute to replace the legislators serving on the commission with citizens appointed by the General Assembly. Nothing in the court’s decision suggested the EMC must be dissolved and that did not happen; nothing in the decision questioned the validity of past EMC actions. The decision in McCrory v. Berger likewise does not hold that actions already taken by the Coal Ash Management Commission — such as hiring staff and entering into contracts for services — are void or voidable.
Another separation of powers case still pending in Wake County Superior Court challenges appointments to the Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) and specifically asks the court to void the MEC’s past rulemaking actions. But to date, no court has ruled that the presence of unconstitutionally appointed members invalidates a commission’s past acts. The MEC case directly raises the issue for the first time and could lead to a decision affecting future separation of powers cases. In the meantime, the McCrory administration has chosen to go further than the decision in McCrory v. Berger requires to undo the existing organizational, staff and contractual arrangements supporting the Coal Ash Management Commission. (It isn’t clear whether the McCrory administration’s position on the CAMC would carry over to support for the plaintiffs seeking to invalidate the Mining and Energy Commission’s past rulemaking actions on similar grounds.)
The General Assembly’s next move may depend on continued legislative interest in providing oversight for DEQ’s coal ash decision making. In 2014, the General Assembly created the Coal Ash Management Commission to provide independent oversight for DEQ decisions related to coal ash disposal and closure of existing coal ash ponds. At the time, legislators expressed concern about relying entirely on DEQ’s judgment because of controversy surrounding early McCrory administration decisions on coal ash enforcement and a pending federal investigation of relationships between state regulators and Duke Energy. The question is whether those concerns still exist and, if so, how the legislature will react to the Governor’s unilateral move to disable the commission. The General Assembly can resolve the separation of powers issue and revive the CAMC by simply changing the CAMC appointment provision to allow the Governor to make a majority of the appointments.
By forcing the Coal Ash Management Commission to start over, the Governor’s action may make it impossible for the commission to meet its first critical deadline –risk classification of coal ash ponds. The Coal Ash Management Act gave the CAMC final authority to determine the appropriate risk classification of each coal ash pond; the risk classification will determine how quickly the ash pond must be closed and whether the coal ash must be excavated and disposed of in a lined landfill. Only coal ash ponds classified as Low Risk can be closed out by dewatering and capping the ash in place. Under the law, the CAMC must make a final decision on risk classification of a coal ash pond within 60 days after DEQ sends the commission a proposed risk classification. If the commission does not act within 60 days, DEQ’s proposed risk classification becomes the final classification by default.
Timelines in the law will require DEQ to submit proposed classifications for all of the coal ash ponds to the Coal Ash Management Commission by mid-May. Some proposed classifications may be ready sooner. Even if new appointments to the CAMC can be made under an amended appointments statute by that time, the Governor’s action means the newly appointed commission will have to reassemble a staff, re-engage consultants and revive basic operating systems to function. Unless the General Assembly extends the time for the CAMC to review and act on proposed risk classifications, the DEQ proposed classifications may become final by default before the commission can act.
After the ash ponds have been classified, the next major set of CAMC decisions under the Coal Ash Management Act involve approval of final closure plans for each coal ash pond. The closure plans determine whether coal ash will be excavated and removed from the site or capped in place and includes approval of technical specifications for final disposal of coal ash. The closure plan may also involve approval of a beneficial reuse project as an alternative to landfill disposal. The law directs the CAMC to make the final decision on approving a final closure plan based on a recommendation from DEQ. The law again gives the CAMC a limited time to act on each recommended closure plan; if the commission does not act within the time allowed, DEQ’s recommended closure plan becomes final by default.
If the General Assembly does not intervene to protect the Coal Ash Management Commission’s ability to carry out its responsibilities, the practical result could be a significant change in the way the Coal Ash Management Act works. Delaying the commission’s ability to act in time to affect DEQ’s decisions on closure of coal ash ponds will have the practical effect of ceding all decision-making back to DEQ. The original concept of providing independent oversight of those decisions through the Coal Ash Management Commission will be lost.