Feds launch criminal probe into coal ash spill

The U.S. Attorney has ordered Duke Energy and state environment officials to turn over documents to a federal grand jury in March.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh has opened a criminal investigation into a coal ash spill that dumped thousands of gallons of toxic sludge into the Dan River from a pond near a shuttered Duke Energy power plant. 
A subpoena issued to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources orders representatives of the agency to deliver documents to a grand jury for up to three days starting March 18. WRAL News obtained copies of the subpoena through a public records request to DENR. 

Tom Williams, director of corporate media relations for Duke Energy, acknowledged Thursday that the company had also received a subpoena from the federal government.

"Duke Energy will continue to cooperate with any state or federal agency that would undertake and investigation," he said.

Williams declined to provide a copy of the document, saying that it was "confidential by its nature." Corporations like Duke are not subject to the same public records rules that govern state agencies.

In the subpoena issued to the state, the federal government is seeking evidence related to the Feb. 2 spill from a waste pond near a power plant in Rockingham County. Such ponds contain the material left over after coal is burned for power generation. The dust is stored in a slurry, and contains hazardous material like mercury, arsenic and heavy metals. State health officials issued two warnings Wednesday for people to avoid swimming and eating fish caught near the spill site.

The Dan River Steam Station, near Eden, no longer produces power for Duke Energy, but the company is still considering how to decommission the property. 

The subpoena to the state seeks copies of permits related to the plant, as well as "any and all emails, memoranda, letters, photographs, videos, reports, and any other documents or materials" since 2010 that speak to leaks or discharges from the pond. Prosecutors are also seeking documents and emails specifically related to the Feb. 2 spill.

The subpoena does not explicitly say who the target of the criminal probe might be, but it does seek records of communication between Duke Energy and the state during spill's immediate aftermath. 

"We will cooperate in the request," DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said.

Even before the spill, Duke, the state, and environmental groups had been involved in litigation over the Eden plant and 14 other current and closed coal ash sites throughout the state. Environmental groups say the ponds are a hazard because they slowly leach toxins into ground water and are a risk for catastrophic spills like the one in the Dan River. 

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