North Carolina’s environmental officials have hit Duke Energy with a record $25 million fine over its role in contaminating local groundwater with pollution from a pair of coal ash pits at a disused power plant.
The Duke Energy power plant site in Sutton, North Carolina has a
pair of unlined dumps estimated to hold 2.6 million tons of coal
ash – the waste that’s left after burning coal for electricity –
which contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other
heavy metals, many of which are toxic.
Monitoring wells near the dumps showed the pollution – which is
considered a public health risk – included nine metals, among
them boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese, and other
chemicals that exceed state groundwater standards. Thallium was
used for decades as the active ingredient in rat poison until it
was banned due to being highly toxic.
— Appalachian Voices (@AppVoices) March
The $25 million fine levied by the North Carolina Department of
Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the state’s largest
penalty for environmental damages to date.
State environment secretary Donald van der Vaart told the Charlotte Observer that the fine
highlights the aggressive regulations of ash under Governor Pat
“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past
contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving
expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and
groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide,” van der Vaart
said in a statement.
The penalty was calculated by determining the
number of days seeping had occurred (roughly 1,668 days total)
and multiplying it by the daily civil penalty amount ($5,000) for
each contaminant that had leaked out.
State water quality officials knew for years about the
contamination at Sutton but took no enforcement action until
August 2013, when citizen groups tried to sue Duke for violating
the Clean Water Act. The suit was ultimately blocked because of
the political ties that North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has to
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow discovered that for 29 years, McCrory was a
Duke Energy executive. As of 2013, he owned at least $10,000 in
Duke Energy stock. A Department of Justice investigation into
McCrory’s money ties found he received three times more in
gubernatorial campaign donations than five other sitting
The DENR said other groundwater violations at other sites could
led to further fines against Duke, the largest utility company in
the United States. Tuesday’s fine will go to a statewide fund for
Duke Energy, valued at some $50 billion, has 30 days to appeal
the fine. The Charlotte-based company issued the following statement to NBC TV
“We are working quickly to close ash basins, including those
at the Sutton Plant, which will help address impacts to
groundwater. We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary
approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites.
We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that
would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already
been addressed…We are currently reviewing the notice from DENR
and will respond to the state.”
Duke Energy is also at the center of a federal grand jury
investigation into the 2014 coal ash spill that unloaded 39,000
tons of coal ash and some 27 million gallons of coal ash slurry
across 70 miles of the Dan River. Although the spill was one of
the largest of its kind in US history, government officials
maintained the drinking water downstream was safe.
The company said in February that it had agreed to pay $102
million to settle criminal charges against the firm levied by the
federal government. The three US Attorneys’ Offices covering the
state charged Duke with nine misdemeanor counts involving
violations of the Clean Water Act.
— Dominick Saia (@dominicksaia) March
Duke has 32 coal ash dumps scattered at 14 sites across the
state, and has been under intense scrutiny since the spill. The
company told North Carolina regulators in December 2014 that more
than three million gallons of toxic chemicals were leaking near
local rivers and lakes every day. Federal prosecutors recently
filed multiple criminal charges against Duke over years of
illegal pollution leaking from coal ash dumps at five North
Carolina power plants.