North Carolina’s environmental regulatory agency has joined Duke Energy in appealing a ruling that the company must clean up groundwater pollution from its coal ash storage ponds, Bloomberg reports.
Duke Energy runs seven coal-fired power plants in the state, and keeps the coal ash — residue left after the coal is burned — in 33 ponds near its operating facilities. Many of the ponds are over 50 years old, and state environmental groups have long feared they were leaking chemicals into the North Carolina’s underground drinking water supplies. Several groups filed a suit demanding Duke take immediate action to clean up their operations back in 2013, and Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled in their favor on March 6 of this year. His decision also said the state’s Environmental Management Commission broke the law by failing to require Duke to move quickly to clean up the pollution.
Duke appealed the ruling on April 3, and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) — which includes the Environmental Management Commission — joined the appeal on Monday.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which is providing legal aid to several of those environmental groups, data collected over years shows the coal ash ponds have in fact fouled North Carolina’s groundwater. According to the Charlotte Observer, the federal Environmental Protection Agency also expressed concerns back in 2013 that the DENR was not responding rapidly or rigorously enough to the problems with Duke’s coal ash ponds. Monitoring of groundwater near Duke’s Asheville and Riverbend plants in particular showed levels of boron, manganese, and thallium in excess of regulatory limits.
Duke Energy and the DENR previously tried to settle the case with an agreement that would’ve required Duke to pay a $99,100 fine, with no cleanup requirements. Environmental watchdog groups denounced the arrangement as a “remarkable sweetheart deal,” and EPA officials privately told the DENR that the amount “seems low considering the number of years these facilities are alleged to have been out of compliance.” The EPA also said more testing and monitoring for pollution should be required.
That settlement deal was ultimately scuttled after a new spill from one of Duke’s ponds dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash slurry into North Carolina’s Dan River. The incident also sparked an ongoing federal criminal investigation into whether the DENR was inappropriately lax in regulating Duke Energy.
Emails obtained by the Associated Press in March suggest DENR staff members were coordinating legal strategy with Duke officials during the suit.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory — who, as head of the state’s executive branch, is ultimately in charge of the DENR — also worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, and received substantial financial support form the company during his campaign. Since the latest spill, McCrory’s relationship with Duke has come under increased public scrutiny.