North Carolina environmental regulators fined Duke Energy $6.6 million this week for the company’s role in a 2014 coal ash spill that sent millions of gallons of contaminated water into the state’s Dan River.
The fine covers violations Duke Energy pleaded guilty to in federal court last year. In February of 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash — a toxic byproduct of coal burning that can contain lead, mercury, and arsenic — and 27 million gallons of contaminated water leaked from a storage pond at a closed Duke power plant in North Carolina into the Dan River. It was later discovered that Duke was warned about the potential for leaks from the storage pond before the spill occurred, but the company ignored these warnings.
Monday’s fine was handed down to the company by North Carolina’s Department of Environmental quality, and joins the $2.5 million settlement Duke agreed to with the state of Virginia, which was also impacted by the spill. It also joins the $102 million in fines and restitution related to the spill Duke agreed to pay in May of last year.
“We are moving forward with enforcement actions against Duke Energy for not complying with environmental laws that protect North Carolina’s environment from catastrophes like the Dan River spill,” North Carolina DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement. “The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law.”
Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that seeing Duke fined for the disaster isn’t the main thing his group is concerned about.
“A fine like this against a multi-billion dollar company like Duke is nearly symbolic,” he told ThinkProgress. “We really are not interested in fines. We’re interested in preventing disasters so that no fines will ever have to be assessed.”
Specifically, Holleman wants to see coal ash ponds in North Carolina cleaned up. Duke Energy stores coal ash in 32 unlined ponds located at 14 retired or functioning power plants across the state. Duke has already committed to cleaning up ponds in seven of those locations, but Holleman wants to see the state DEQ prompt the company to clean up the other seven.
“There are seven sites in North Carolina that could face another Dan River disaster, and we need the DEQ to act to prevent another disaster, rather than only issue a fine after a disaster,” he said.
Holleman is also waiting on North Carolina and Virginia to complete assessments of the natural resource damages from the spill. The damage could be signifigant: one study from 2015 estimated the ecological, recreational, aesthetic, and human health damages from the spill totaled $295,485,000. And that study looked at only the first six months after the spill, meaning the total damage could end up being higher.
SELC has ten lawsuits pending in North Carolina, all of which deal with Duke Energy’s pollution. Holleman said the issue of coal ash is huge in North Carolina. The Dan River spill helped bring it to the forefront, but even before the spill, residents were concerned about it. In 2013, the DEQ — then the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — proposed a settlement of a case that did not require Duke to clean up coal ash ponds across the state. That settlement received nearly 5,000 comments during the public comment period.
“Hundreds of people have received letters telling them they shouldn’t drink well water from wells located near coal ash sites,” Holleman said. “This issue is on the front burner.”
Duke, for its part, says it is reviewing the DEQ’s fine and continues to “work as quickly as the state process will allow to safely close coal ash basins.”
“The state’s own research demonstrates that the Dan River is thriving. Drinking water always remained safe and water quality returned to normal within days of the February 2014 incident,” Duke said in an emailed statement. “At the Dan River facility and across the state, we’re making strong progress in closing basins in ways that protect people and the environment, comply with state and federal coal ash laws, minimize impact to communities, and manage cost.”