Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

North Carolina Colluded With Duke Energy to Block Green Groups: Internal Docs

Emails show state regulators worked with corporation to undermine environmental lawsuits

Sarah Lazare

Internal emails released Thursday by environmental lawyers confirm what activists have long charged: the North Carolina authorities tasked with regulating Duke Energy — the company responsible for the Dan River coal ash disaster — have been colluding with the corporation behind closed doors to undermine concerned environmental groups.

"These documents reveal a very cozy relationship between the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke and a deferential approach from DENR to Duke," said Nick Torrey, Associate Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in an interview with Common Dreams.

In January 2013, the SELC announced plans to sue Duke Energy on behalf of environmental organizations over dangerous coal ash ponds near Asheville, North Carolina. This was soon followed by similar action regarding the Riverbend coal ash dump north of Mount Holly. "For a long time, they've known their coal ash ponds are leaking and polluting groundwater," said Torrey.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, citizens can sue a polluter to enforce environmental law. Yet, before they do so, they must give 60 days' notice to the polluter to ostensibly give that polluter the opportunity clean up its act, explained Torrey. However, a state agency can file its own lawsuit, and if it does so on the exact same claims raised in the 60 day notice letter, then those groups cannot file own suit in federal court.

"Each time we sent 60 day notice letters, on approximately the 59th day, the DENR would file its own enforcement action," said Torrey, explaining this effectively blocked the environmental suits.

Emails between Duke Energy and state regulators — obtained through a public records request by the SELC — show that, behind the scenes, the DENR engaged in closed-door negotiations with Duke Energy and communicated with them before intervening in the legal actions of environmental groups.

For example, when the DENR filed a suit to block the SELC suit over the Asheville site, an email from the DENR dated March 22 states, "All is well" and indicates that Duke's lawyer was present at DENR's office. Less than a week after they received a 60 day notice from SELC regarding the Riverbend plant, DENR began negotiating with Duke Energy on a settlement, an April 1 email shows.

Over the summer, Duke Energy reached a proposed settlement with the state that would require the $5 billion corporation to pay a $99,000 fine and "study" the potential effects of its pollution. "The agreement doesn't require Duke to take any real action," said Patrick Hunter, associate attorney for SELC, in an interview with Common Dreams.

After one of Duke Energy's coal ash ponds near Eden in February spilled tens of thousands of arsenic and lead-laden coal ash into the Dan River that flows through North Carolina and Virginia, federal prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the relationship between the company and state regulators, putting the $99,000 settlement on hold.

Yet, environmental campaigners warn that the state and corporate structures responsible for the coal ash disaster remain firmly in place. 

DENR has now sued Duke Energy for all of its 14 coal ash ponds across the state — a move that Hunter said is likely aimed at preempting and undermining more hard-hitting suits from environmental groups.

"For years, and especially under the current state administration, the attitude toward these dangerous coal ash sites has been hands-off from the state, and the settlement that was proposed is more of the same," said Torrey. "It didn't apply to the Dan River site, but it was a template for how the state wants to approach issues of allowing the polluter to not take action."

_____________________


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Reckless Misuse of Resources': House Approves $778 Billion Military Budget

"There was no CBO score needed. No concern about the deficit. No mention of inflation," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Jake Johnson ·


Senate Dems Help Torpedo Resolution That Would Have Blocked $650 Million Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

"My simple question is, why in the world would the United States reward a regime that has caused such pain in Yemen with more weapons," Sanders asked after the vote. "The answer is we should not."

Brett Wilkins ·


Amnesty Scorecard Finds Twitter Failing to Protect Women From Online Abuse

"As our world has become increasingly dependent on digital spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic, it's critical that Twitter meet this moment with demonstrated commitment to improving the online experiences of all users, regardless of their identity."

Jessica Corbett ·


Filibuster Reform for Debt Ceiling Fight But Not Voting Rights or Reproductive Freedom?

"If our senators are willing to suspend the filibuster to protect our economy, they should be willing to suspend it to protect our democracy and our freedom to vote."

Jessica Corbett ·


As Senate Holds Guantánamo Hearing, Biden Urged to 'Finally End This Chapter of Injustice'

"Guantánamo is a centerpiece of the forever wars. It is a shameful symbol of racial injustice, torture, and violations of the Constitution and international law."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo