Largest electric company in US fined $6.6m for coal ash spill

The Duke Energy coal-fired power plant is seen from the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina. © Chris Keane
Environmental regulators in North Carolina have fined Duke Energy $6.6 million for its massive spill of toxic coal ash waste into the Dan River in February 2014. The incident was one of the largest coal ash spills in US history.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced Tuesday that the fine only applies to violations that Duke Energy pleaded guilty to in federal criminal court in May 2015, which resulted in $102 million in federal fines pursuant to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. The state regulatory body said it "reserves the right" to levy additional fines for "other violations associated with the spill."

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” said department head Donald R. van der Vaart. “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.”

The spill, emanating from a rupture in an underground pipe at Duke Energy's power plant in Eden, North Carolina, unloaded up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and some 27 million gallons of coal ash slurry into the Dan River. The sludge traveled 70 miles downstream, with crews working for a week to simply stop the spread of contaminant.

Coal ash is the waste that remains after burning coal for electricity. The substance contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of which are toxic.

Duke Energy, the largest supplier of electricity in the US, said that it will review the fine and decide whether to issue a challenge to the fine. The company took the opportunity to tout the health of the Dan River two years after the spill.

"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 Energy claimed in a statement.

However, cleanup of the spill continues, WNCN reported last week. While Duke says local water sources are not contaminated, residents living near the company's 14 coal plants say they have found contamination in their water wells. Per a state law passed after the spill, Duke has until 2029 to close or clean its coal ash waste ponds. The company said it is transporting around 60,000 tons of coal ash per month from its Dan River facility. Half the waste will end up in landfills in Virginia, WNCN reported, while the other half will be sealed and stored at the Dan River site.

The company has coal ash dumps at 14 sites across the state. 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.

The Dan River site is not the only Duke Energy holding to receive scrutiny from state and federal regulators. In March 2015, the state environmental regulator fined the company $25 million for its role in contaminating local groundwater with pollution from a pair of coal ash pits at its power plant site in Sutton, North Carolina.