Duke Energy agrees to coal ash settlement with Virginia

Posted April 3, 2015

Pete Harrison, a lawyer with the Waterkeeper Alliance, takes a core sample from the Dan River near Milton, N.C., on Jan. 30, 2015. The samples will show coal ash layered with clay and natural sediments on the river bottom.

— State environmental officials in Virginia say they have reached a $2.5 million settlement with Duke Energy related to the Dan River coal ash spill on Feb. 2, 2014.

According to a news release on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's website, the settlement is one of the largest penalties ever proposed by the state through a consent order. Such orders are drafted in cooperation between the state and the responsible party and entered into by mutual agreement.

"Duke has agreed to undertake $2.25 million in environmental projects that benefit Virginia localities affected by the spill," according to the release. Virginia will use the remaining $250,000 to respond to future environmental emergencies.

According to the Associated Press, the settlement is still subject to approval by the State Water Control Board. The consent order does not preclude affected Virginia localities from seeking their own settlements with Duke.

"This is strictly between the state of Virginia and Duke," DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden told the Associated Press.

Coal ash is the material left over after coal is burned as fuel. Much of it is inert, although it does contain high levels of heavy metals and other toxic materials. For decades, coal ash has been mixed with water and stored in unlined pits, most of them perched along the same rivers and lakes that provide water to the steam generating power plants. Pete Harrison takes a core sample of the Dan River 01/30: Year after ash spill, state of Dan River in dispute

The Feb. 2, 2014, spill occurred when a corrugated metal pipe underneath such an unlined pit in Eden, N.C., spewed roughly 39,000 tons of toxin-laden ash into the Dan River, distributing ash over a 70-mile stretch of stream bed that reaches north from North Carolina, loops into Virginia and then dips back down into North Carolina.

This is the latest settlement the Charlotte-based utility has reached with regulators. In February, Duke announced it had agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal penalties and pay $68 million in fines and restitution and another $34 million in mitigation costs and community service efforts to settle the case. Final approval in that case is still pending.

The company has agreed to pay for the cleanup of the spill in North Carolina but is involved in legal wrangling over the cleanup of other coal ash facilities across the state.

North Carolina lawmakers last year passed a law that they hope will force the utility to either remove or permanently contain coal ash ponds like the one they caused the Eden spill. However, a commission meant to oversee that cleanup is the subject of a lawsuit by Gov. Pat McCrory against the state legislature that is now pending before the state Supreme Court.

"We believe this agreement represents a fair outcome that will bring benefits to the citizens of Virginia," said Paul Newton, Duke Energy president for North Carolina. "Although the Dan River coal ash spill occurred in North Carolina, we recognize the number of miles that the river spans in Virginia. Duke Energy is committed to working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to expedite the benefits of this agreement and to help protect and promote natural resources in the state."


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