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Duke Energy slammed with record $25.1 million coal ash fine

Duke Energy slammed with record $25.1 million coal ash fine

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Updated 10:42 p.m.

Duke Energy took another hit for its coal-ash handling practices Tuesday when state regulators levied a $25.1 million fine against one of its retired plants near Wilmington.

North Carolina officials said they imposed the largest fine in state history for environmental damages because of the severity and duration of groundwater pollution near the coal-fired L.V. Sutton Plant.

They based the fine on the length of time coal ash contamination continued in the groundwater, the harmful characteristics of the chemicals detected near the plant, and the overall amount of damage to the groundwater. State government’s cost to investigate the problem also was included in the fine, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a news release.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart said Tuesday.

As a former Duke Energy employee for nearly 30 years, Gov. Pat McCrory has faced criticism over the past year by environmentalists who allege that his administration has been too soft on the coal ash issue, allegations he and others in his administration hotly deny.

If and when Duke Energy pays the fine, proceeds would go to a statewide fund for public schools as required by the state constitution, DENR officials said.

Duke Energy has 30 days to pay up or appeal.

The utility was apparently caught off guard by the fine and had no immediate reaction.

Company officials are just “digesting this now” and cannot immediately say whether they think the fine is just or excessive, and whether they might file an appeal, Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in a Tuesday afternoon email.

But Sheehan said the utility believes it has fixed any coal ash problems at the Sutton plant, which was closed in 2013, that might jeopardize its neighbors.

“We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed,” she said.

Groundwater is the slowly moving flow underground that often provides well water for people in rural and suburban areas.

The state fine comes barely two weeks after the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act in its handling of coal ash stored in ponds at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden, and at other plants in Buncombe, Chatham, Gaston and Wayne counties.

When the federal case was unveiled Feb. 20, Duke Energy announced immediately that it had reached a tentative settlement of the federal charges, including $102 million in penalties and five years of corporate probation.

Tuesday’s state sanctions, unlike the federal charges, are civil penalties, not allegations of criminal misconduct.

Coal ash became a pressing political and governmental issue in North Carolina after a large-scale spill from a storage pond at the closed Dan River plant. That spill went directly into the river through a ruptured, stormwater pipe on Feb. 2, 2014.

The new fines from state government stem from underground seepage at two unlined ponds near the Wilmington plant where coal ash from decades of power-making is stored. The utility estimates those ponds hold 6.3 million tons of ash.

Coal-fired plants burn the pulverized fuel at great heat to help make electricity, and the ash is what is left. It contains relatively small amounts of material that can be toxic in the large quantities Duke Energy and other utilities store them in ponds, often next to a lake or river.

State regulators alleged in documents supporting the fine Tuesday that the Sutton ponds leaked seven substances detected at unsafe levels in required monitoring wells nearby.

They said problem chemicals included excessive levels of arsenic at one test well; boron at nine wells; iron at three wells; manganese at six wells; selenium at one well; thallium at two wells; and dissolved solids at one well.

Coal ash pollution persisted in the test wells for varying lengths of time, ranging from a low of one year for an arsenic-contaminated test well to five years of boron pollution at nine test sites.

The seven substances vary in the level of threat they pose to human health, but they all can be harmful in sufficient quantities and concentrations.

Tuesday’s fine against the utility’s Progress division applies only to the Sutton plant, one of 14 sites across North Carolina where the utility stores coal ash submerged in unlined ponds and where similar leakage problems have been alleged.

Problems at those sites could result in additional fines against the utility, DENR officials said.

“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving very expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide,” said Donald van der Vaart, the state DENR secretary.

Coal-fired plants in the Greensboro region with storage ponds include the retired Dan River facility and another Duke Energy site that continues to operate at Belews Creek, northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County.

A state law the General Assembly passed last year requires Duke Energy to close all its coal ash ponds by 2029 but calls on the utility to eliminate those at Sutton, Dan River and two other “priority sites” within five years.

“We are working quickly to close coal ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater,” Sheehan, the Duke Energy spokeswoman, said in her email. “We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites.”


State environmental officials slammed Duke Energy on Tuesday with a $25.1 million penalty for coal ash pollution at a retired coal-fired plant near Wilmington.

State officials said the fine for ground water contamination near the shuttered Sutton plant is the state's largest-ever fine for environmental damages of any sort.

The fine was computed based on the length of time that coal-ash contamination continued, the harmful characteristics of the chemicals that make up coal ash, and the overall amount of damage to groundwater near the plant. State government's cost to investigate the problem also was included in the fine, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a press release.

The payment will go to a statewide fund for public schools, DENR officials said.

Duke Energy apparently was caught off guard by the fine, and had no immediate reaction to its scope or fairness.

The utility is just "digesting this now" and cannot immediately say whether it believes the proposed fine is just or excessive, or whether the company might file an appeal, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in a Tuesday afternoon email.

Sheehan said the company believes it has fixed any coal-ash problems at the Sutton plant that might have endangered its neighbors.

"We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed," Sheehan said.

The fine against the utility's Progress division applies only to the Sutton plant, one of 14 sites where the utility stores coal submerged in unlined ponds and where similar leakage problems have been alleged.

Problems at those sites could result in additional fines against the utility, DENR officials said.

"In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving very expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide," said Donald van der Vaart, state DENR secretary.

Coal-fired plants in the Greensboro region include the retired Dan River Steam Station, the plant near Eden that launched the state's coal ash crisis with a February 2014 spill from a storage pond directly into the river.

Duke Energy also continues to operate a coal fired plant at Belews Creek, northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County.

"We are working quickly to close coal ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater," Sheehan said in her email. "We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites."

Contact Taft Wireback at (336) 373-7100, and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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