Two years later, NC fines Duke for coal ash spill

State environmental regulators have fined Duke Energy more than $6.6 million for a coal ash spill that fouled 70 miles of the Dan River two years ago last week.

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Coal ash spill in Dan River
Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — State environmental regulators have fined Duke Energy more than $6.6 million for a coal ash spill that fouled 70 miles of the Dan River two years ago last week.

The Department of Environmental Quality issued the fine, along with a $207,000 bill for the agency's enforcement work, on Monday. The fine covers civil penalties the company committed before, during and after the Feb. 2, 2014, spill from ash ponds at Duke's shuttered Dan River Steam Station near Eden.

The spill occurred when a corrugated metal stormwater pipe that ran under the ash ponds collapsed, allowing an estimated 39,000 tons of ash to flow from the unlined pits into the river. Coal ash is the material left over after coal is burned for energy, and it contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other materials harmful to humans and wildlife.

The spill prompted the General Assembly to pass a law in 2014 requiring Duke to close all of its coal ash ponds statewide by 2029. The ash ponds in Eden and at three other sites were placed first on the priority list and must be closed by 2019. Duke has already started moving some of the ash by train to a Virginia landfill, and the company plans to create a lined landfill at the Eden plant site for the rest of the ash.

The collapse of the stormwater pipe and the spill itself accounted for only $1.8 million of the fine, while $3.1 million was for environmental violations linked to years of leaks from the ash ponds into a second stormwater pipe that ran into the Dan River. The remainder of the fine was for Duke not properly maintaining the plant site to minimize the risk of a spill.

"The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law," Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart said in a statement.

Duke last May pleaded guilty to violations of the federal Clean Water Act in connection with the Dan River spill and with discharges from four other coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. The Charlotte-based utility agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution.

DEQ said the state fine issued Monday is based on those violations, and the agency could issue additional fines for other violations associated with the spill.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has challenged Duke's and DEQ's handling of coal ash leaks in court for years, called the fine "three years too late."

"DEQ admits that Duke Energy committed over 2,000 violations of North Carolina law, which DEQ and Duke Energy failed to address prior to the Dan River spill, and it has taken DEQ two years to assess this fine for thousands of obvious violations of law," Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the SELC, said in a statement. "The Dan River spill was entirely unnecessary, and this fine against a multi-billion-dollar company does not solve any of the ongoing problems that continue to threaten North Carolina’s communities and clean water."

Meanwhile, Duke officials said "the Dan River is thriving" after the spill and that company continues working to meet the state mandate to close all of its ash ponds.

"We will review the action taken by NCDEQ today as we continue to work as quickly as the state process will allow to safely close coal ash basins," the company said in a statement. "At the Dan River facility and across the state, we’re making strong progress in closing basins in ways that protect people and the environment, comply with state and federal coal ash laws, minimize impact to communities and manage cost."


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