Virginia sent a clear message to polluters on Thursday that it’s not really a big deal to dump toxins in the water.
At least that’s according to environmental advocates, after the state fined Duke Energy $2.5 million for spilling approximately 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash from a facility six miles upstream in North Carolina. The utility has admitted responsibility for the spill, and environmentalists had suggested a $50 million fine from the state.
“When you commit crimes that result in violations of Virginia’s environmental laws and you cause a catastrophic spill… when you have ignored years of warning about a problem you could easily have dealt with, and when you are the country’s biggest and richest utility, it takes more than a small rounding area — $2.5 million in their daily revenue report — to signal a deterrent,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress.
According to court documents, Duke executives were warned — both by employees and by the state — that the drainage pipe at the unlined coal ash storage pond near the Dan River posed a risk. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and contains a slew of toxins, including arsenic, selenium, chromium, mercury, and lead.
The State Water Control Board agreed with the recommendation of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on the ruling Thursday.
“How big was the fish kill in this event?” Water Control Board member Thomas Van Auken asked the DEQ, the AP reported. When told there was no fish kill, Van Auken responded, “So this looked pretty bad, but maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked.”
But fish kills are not the only signs of toxic pollution. In fact, mercury — which the Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate in a rule currently before the Supreme Court — can be stored in fish and subsequently poison people who eat them. The neurotoxin is particularly dangerous for unborn children, and can cause significant mental deficiencies.
“The fine that Virginia has imposed is woefully inadequate,” Holleman said. “It’s undisputed now that this spill was caused by Duke’s criminal conduct.”
In the federal criminal case, Duke pleaded guilty in May to illegally discharging pollution from coal ash ponds in North Carolina. Those misdemeanor charges included the spill at the Dan River as well as several other locations.
In the plea agreement, Duke agreed to pay $102 million — $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and projects to help mitigate the effects of the pollution.
According to Holleman, the company could still face federal natural resources fines for the Dan River spill. The money from those fines would likely go into a trust for the continued care of the two states’ natural resources that were damaged or put at risk by the company. Individual communities affected by the spill, such as Danville, VA, can also bring separate civil suits.
Separately, the company was fined $25 million in March by the state of North Carolina for allowing coal ash to seep into groundwater at another plant.
Duke vowed to contest that fine. “We cannot allow this level of regulatory overreach to go unchallenged,” Paul Newton, Duke’s state president for North Carolina, said at the time. “The actions by [the North Carolina government] send a chilling message to the North Carolina business community.”
The company, which is based in Charlottesville, reported an annual revenue of more than $24 billion last year.