Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina regulators say they will withdraw from an controversial agreement that would have settled a set of lawsuits over toxins illegally leaking from coal ash ponds maintained near Duke Energy power plants.
Last month, officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told the court that they were considering expanding the settlement from the three ash ponds that it had covered to all 14 locations where Duke stores coal ash in ponds.
That settlement came in for criticism from environmental groups following a Feb. 2 coal ash spill from a now-shuttered power plant on the Dan River. The spill has coated 70 miles of riverbed with 30,000 to 40,000 tons of toxin-laced ash, according to the Duke and observations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
DENR officials proposed a settlement that included a $99,000 fine for pollution at steam stations near Asheville and Charlotte. Expanding the settlement would have ended a package of legal challenges. Environmental advocates said that fine was insufficient punishment for a company worth some $50 billion, and they complained that the settlement didn't require Duke to dispose of the ash.
Now those legal actions will proceed.
"We intend for our lawsuits against Duke Energy to move forward," DENR Secretary John Skvarla said in a statement. "We will continue to hold the utility accountable for the clean-up of its coal ash impoundments through the lawsuits, the reopening of the permits and our ongoing investigation."
Legally, DENR must ask the court's permission to withdraw from the agreement.
A DENR spokesman said Friday that the move to withdraw from the agreement was prompted by another court ruling this month ordering Duke to quickly stop toxins from leaking out of coal ash ponds across the state. Earlier this week, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway refused to stay that order until it could be appealed.
"In view of the court’s order, DENR believes the best course of action at this time is to withdraw its support for the current consent order," said a news release from the agency.
“Duke Energy is reviewing NC-DENR’s announcement," said David Scanzoni, a spokesman for the company.
The move drew cheers from environmental groups, who have been pushing both the state and Duke to do more to clean up the ponds.
"Hopefully, DENR will now join with us in enforcing the law," said Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In January 2013, the center gave the state notice that it would sue to enforce clean water violations under federal law. Instead of allowing that suit to go forward, DENR stepped in to bring suit themselves.
That prompted SELC and other environmental groups to cry foul. Holleman said DENR had crafted "a weak and ineffective" settlement that neither punished the company or aggressively pushed for cleanup.