State Fines Duke Energy $25 Million For Coal Waste, Still Doesn’t Require Cleanup

CREDIT: AP Photo / Gerry Broome

A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River spill in February.

North Carolina’s environmental agency handed Duke Energy a record fine Tuesday after finding the company let coal ash contaminants from one plant leach into groundwater over a period of several years.

The $25.1 million penalty is nearly five times the amount of the previous largest fine from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and applies to pollution from the Sutton coal power plant near Wilmington, which was decommissioned in 2013.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” DENR Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said in a statement. “In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide.”

 L.V. Sutton Complex operated by Duke Energy  in Wilmington, N.C.

L.V. Sutton Complex operated by Duke Energy in Wilmington, N.C.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Randall Hill

Coal ash, or coal combustion residuals, is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, and contains contaminants such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Coal ash is stored in ponds, which are often located near lakes and waterways, and leaks or illegal disposal can cause environmental and economic damage.

“This proposed fine does not clean up one ounce of coal ash pollution,” Frank Holland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center said in an email to ThinkProgress. “It is the easiest thing in the world for Duke Energy to write a check. What the Wilmington community and its clean water need is elimination and cleanup of the coal ash pollution.”

Duke Energy has an annual revenue of more than $24 billion and sold more than 58 thousand gigawatt-hours of electricity last year.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has in the past received criticism for lenient fines on Duke Energy, including for a $99,111 fine over similar groundwater contamination that was rescinded and increased after the company spilled 35 million gallons of coal ash into the Dan River in 2014. McCrory worked for Duke Energy for almost 30 years.

The Dan River spill triggered a slew of environmental investigations into the company’s wastewater practices, including at the Sutton plant and four other locations.

Last fall, North Carolina passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which directed Duke Energy to move low-lying coal ash dumps if there is significant risk of contaminating groundwater and gives the company five years to excavate ash in storage at its four highest risk coal-fired power plants.

“There are two separate issues – removal of the ash from the unlined storage sites, and cleanup of the pollution caused by the unlined coal ash storage,” Holland said. “As to the coal ash pollution, Duke hasn’t agreed to take action, DENR hasn’t required it, and it’s not mandated by the coal ash bill.”

Duke Energy also pointed to DENR as the cause of clean up delays. “We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites,” the company said in a statement.

A popular recreational fishing lake near the Sutton facility was the object of an investigation by the Southern Environmental Law Center in 2014 that found selenium from coal ash was killing 900,000 fish each year.

“We’re currently following a state directed process to enhance groundwater assessments at our facilities,” Duke Energy said. “The information will add clarity to current data, inform closure decisions and help determine any future monitoring requirements. We are working quickly to close ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater.”

Duke has 30 days to formally respond to the state. There is an option to appeal.