Duke Energy plead guilty to nine federal misdemeanors related to illegally discharging pollution from coal ash ponds in North Carolina on Thursday afternoon, and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.
Federal prosecutors charged Duke with the nine violations of the Clean Water Act in February, asserting that the company had been illegally dumping coal ash from five of its North Carolina power plants since at least 2010.
Duke, the nation’s largest electricity company, had already worked out a plea bargain with the federal government at the time of the charges, and Thursday’s proceeding finalized the deal. It also stood as a reminder of the damage caused by the company’s environmental negligence.
As the Associated Press reported, Judge Malcolm Howard went through each of the misdemeanors individually, asking Julia Janson, the company’s chief legal officer, if the company had engaged in each action. After responding “yes” to each instance she then replied “softly” that Duke was indeed pleading guilty to each count.
“In the court hearing, prosecutors gave multiple examples where Duke employees knew or were warned that they were discharging pollution into the state’s waterways and they were slow to do anything or took no action at all,” the Associated Press reported.
As ThinkProgress previously reported, the investigation into Duke’s coal ash malpractices began last February, when a storage pond leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, which ended up coating 70 miles of the river in gray sludge. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal burning that can contain toxins such as arsenic, selenium, chromium, mercury, and lead.
In response to the sentencing Thursday, Duke released a statement saying it’s “used the Dan River incident as an opportunity to set a new, industry-leading standard for the management of coal ash.”
Environmental groups, which have been pursuing cases against Duke’s coal ash dumping for several years, found vindication in the sentencing and the substantial fine of over $100 million.
North Carolina’s environmental agency handed Duke a $25 million fine in March for coal ash contamination from the Sutton coal power plant near Wilmington, which was decommissioned in 2013. The penalty was nearly five times the amount of the previous largest fine from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Duke is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C. and serves approximately 7.3 million customers across the Southeast and Midwest.