Duke Energy fined $25.1 million for groundwater damage from coal ash

Center series on coal ash detailed health and environmental dangers

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An estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash and wastewater were released into the Dan River after a stormwater pipe burst at the Dan River Power Station in North Carolina in February 2014.

Gerry Broome/AP

North Carolina officials have slapped Duke Energy with the state’s largest-ever penalty for environmental damages, fining the utility $25.1 million for groundwater contamination caused by coal ash — the subject of a previous Center for Public Integrity investigation.

The unprecedented fine, announced March 10 by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, resulted from unsafe levels of such contaminants as boron, thallium, selenium and arsenic — in some cases, for nearly five years — in groundwater from coal ash ponds at the Sutton Plant, near Wilmington. The fine followed violations cited by the state environmental agency at the now-shuttered Duke facility in August 2014.

In a statement, DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart described the enforcement action as part of an “aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash.”

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

Coal ash is a byproduct of electric power generation. One of the nation’s largest refuse streams totaling 136 million tons a year, coal ash has fouled water supplies, endangered public health and threatened communities across the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself has recognized as many as 160 “damage” cases in which coal ash from ponds, landfills and other dumpsites have contaminated nearby aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes or tainted the air, including in North Carolina.

In a series of stories starting in 2009, the Center for Public Integrity highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of coal ash.

Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, owns and operates 32 coal ash ponds at 14 power plants throughout North Carolina. Last year, a Duke coal ash pond spewed 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River, prompting state legislators to pass a law in September requiring the utility to close all of its ash ponds by 2029.

Last month, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Duke because of that spill — among the nation’s biggest involving coal ash — accusing the company of violating the federal Clean Water Act.

In December, the EPA unveiled the first-ever national standards regulating the disposal of coal ash at 1,425 coal ash ponds and landfills in 37 states across the country. Under the EPA’s rule, new and existing ash ponds and landfills will face requirements that dozens of states have failed to put in place on their own, such as groundwater monitoring and protective liners for coal ash ponds.

At the time, environmental advocates cited the North Carolina coal-ash law as far more stringent.

Duke Energy has 30 days to respond to the DENR fine.

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