N. Carolina fines Duke Energy a record $25mn over coal ash contamination

Reuters / Ricardo Moraes
North Carolina’s environmental officials have hit Duke Energy with a record $25 million fine over its role in contaminating local groundwater with pollution from a pair of coal ash pits at a disused power plant.

The Duke Energy power plant site in Sutton, North Carolina has a pair of unlined dumps estimated to hold 2.6 million tons of coal ash – the waste that’s left after burning coal for electricity – which contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of which are toxic.

Monitoring wells near the dumps showed the pollution – which is considered a public health risk – included nine metals, among them boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese, and other chemicals that exceed state groundwater standards. Thallium was used for decades as the active ingredient in rat poison until it was banned due to being highly toxic.

The $25 million fine levied by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the state’s largest penalty for environmental damages to date.

State environment secretary Donald van der Vaart told the Charlotte Observer that the fine highlights the aggressive regulations of ash under Governor Pat McCrory.

“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,” van der Vaart said in a statement.

READ MORE:Duke Energy waited 24 hours to report major coal ash spill into Dan River

The penalty was calculated by determining the number of days seeping had occurred (roughly 1,668 days total) and multiplying it by the daily civil penalty amount ($5,000) for each contaminant that had leaked out.

State water quality officials knew for years about the contamination at Sutton but took no enforcement action until August 2013, when citizen groups tried to sue Duke for violating the Clean Water Act. The suit was ultimately blocked because of the political ties that North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has to Duke Energy.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow discovered that for 29 years, McCrory was a Duke Energy executive. As of 2013, he owned at least $10,000 in Duke Energy stock. A Department of Justice investigation into McCrory’s money ties found he received three times more in gubernatorial campaign donations than five other sitting governors.

READ MORE: Huge coal ash spill in N. Carolina may cost Duke Energy $100 million

The DENR said other groundwater violations at other sites could led to further fines against Duke, the largest utility company in the United States. Tuesday’s fine will go to a statewide fund for public schools.

Duke Energy, valued at some $50 billion, has 30 days to appeal the fine. The Charlotte-based company issued the following statement to NBC TV affiliate WECT:

We are working quickly to close ash basins, including those at the Sutton Plant, which will help address impacts to groundwater. We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites. We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed...We are currently reviewing the notice from DENR and will respond to the state.

Duke Energy is also at the center of a federal grand jury investigation into the 2014 coal ash spill that unloaded 39,000 tons of coal ash and some 27 million gallons of coal ash slurry across 70 miles of the Dan River. Although the spill was one of the largest of its kind in US history, government officials maintained the drinking water downstream was safe.

The company said in February that it had agreed to pay $102 million to settle criminal charges against the firm levied by the federal government. The three US Attorneys' Offices covering the state charged Duke with nine misdemeanor counts involving violations of the Clean Water Act.

Duke has 32 coal ash dumps scattered at 14 sites across the state, and has been under intense scrutiny since the spill. The company told North Carolina regulators in December 2014 that more than three million gallons of toxic chemicals were leaking near local rivers and lakes every day. Federal prosecutors recently filed multiple criminal charges against Duke over years of illegal pollution leaking from coal ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.