After Coal Ash Spill, North Carolina Rethinks Prior Paltry Duke Energy Water Pollution Fine

CREDIT: A.P. Images

Pollution visible on the surface of the Dan River, North Carolina.

After the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history at a shuttered Duke Energy coal plant, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is rethinking its proposed settlement with Duke over earlier groundwater contamination from two other coal ash dumps.

Under the deal, which may now be tossed out, Duke would have paid a fine of just $99,111. Lawyers for the agency have asked a judge to disregard this proposal.

“DENR asks this court to hold in abeyance any further consideration of the proposed consent order while DENR undertakes a comprehensive review of all North Carolina coal ash facilities in view of the recent coal ash release into the Dan River,” said the state’s letter to Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway. “DENR will advise the court when it has completed this additional review of North Carolina coal ash facilities and the requirements of the proposed consent order.”

The proposed settlement announced last July was for discharges of coal ash-contaminated wastewater from Duke’s Asheville plant in Buncombe County and its Riverbend plant near Charlotte. Monitoring of groundwater quality near the plants showed levels of boron, manganese, and thallium that exceeded regulatory limits. The deal was immediately blasted by environmental and campaign watchdog groups as a “remarkable sweetheart deal anchored with $1 million in campaign contributions.”

“Given Duke’s $19.6 billion in 2012 operating revenues, that’s the equivalent of fining a person with a $60,000 salary a total of 30 cents,” said Democracy North Carolina in a statement.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory worked for Duke Energy for almost 30 years and still holds stock in the nation’s largest electric utility.

According to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina, McCrory received over $300,000 in direct campaign contributions from Duke-Energy related donors during his 2008 and 2012 gubernatorial races. The Republican Governors Association, which spent over $10 million supporting McCrory’s bid, also received around $760,000 from Duke.

The settlement now in question would have also required Duke to study how to stop the groundwater contamination, but would not have required the company to actually clean up its dumps.

On February 2, a stormwater pipe under an unlined coal ash pond at a retired Duke coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, burst draining 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water into the Dan River

Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to finalize the first-ever federal regulations for the disposal of coal ash by December 19, 2014. The announcement was part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought in 2012, by environmental and public health groups and a Native American tribe.