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A view of North Carolina's Dan River following a leak in a storm pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre coal ash pond operated by Duke Energy. (Photo: File)

A view of North Carolina's Dan River following a leak in a storm pipe at the bottom of a 27-acre coal ash pond operated by Duke Energy. (Photo: File)

Duke Energy 'Settlement' Slashes Fine, Grants Amnesty for Coal Ash Pollution

Environmental organizations condemned deal as a steal for the corporation—and a bad deal for the North Carolina's environment and people

Sarah Lazare

North Carolina regulators on Tuesday agreed to dramatically slash a fine initially imposed on Duke Energy for its coal ash pollution at a site in the west of the state—and grant the company amnesty for dumps at all of its 14 locations—prompting outcry from communities and environmental organizations.

"In another typical move, DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] is cutting Duke Energy a break and failing to demand action," said Amy Adams of the advocacy organization Appalachian Voices. "Apparently, they missed the state motto, Esse quam videri, 'To be rather than to seem,' because seeming to be environmental protectors is about all they have done with this settlement."

The deal was struck during a court hearing between Duke Energy and DEQ, which changed its name from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources due to an apparent reorganization of state departments earlier this month. It stipulates that DEQ will abandon charges over pollution at the L.V. Sutton power plant, where high levels of boron were found in groundwater.

Going further, the deal will settle groundwater contamination cases at all of Duke's 14 coal ash dump locations across the state.

Duke, for its part, will be required to pay a $7 million fee to the state. This averages to $500,000 per site, including the Sutton location—for which the company had originally been fined $25 million.

Therefore, Tuesday's deal effectively cuts the Sutton fine by 98 percent, the Southern Environmental Law Center pointed out Tuesday.

What's more, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Frank Holleman explained, "in settling a proposed fine against Duke for groundwater contamination at Sutton, DEQ is giving Duke a pass on its pollution of Sutton Lake—an important and popular fishing lake in the Wilmington region—by promising not to enforce the law."

"In its first days of existence, DEQ has voluntarily prevented itself from taking action to protect North Carolinians from coal ash pollution of their drinking water by giving Duke amnesty for past, present, and future violations–even agreeing to limit the state’s ability to monitor Duke’s pollution–including at sites like Buck in Salisbury and Allen on Lake Wylie, where residents have severe concerns about their drinking water supplies," Holleman continued.

Meanwhile, he added, the settlement "doesn’t appear to require Duke to do anything it wasn’t going to do anyway."

Duke stores over 150 million tons of coal ash, produced by the burning of coal, in 32 dumps at 14 sites across the state. The dangerous and leaking state of its repositories was thrust into the public limelight by a massive spill into the Dan River last year that captured international headlines.

Environmental advocates have long charged that the coal giant's cozy relationship with state regulators has protected it from consequences for its pollution—and enabled its continuation of hazardous practices. This includes revelations in March of last year that regulatory authorities, who at the time went by DENR, had colluded with Duke behind closed doors to undermine environmental groups concerned with its pollution. And the state's Republican Governor Pat McCrory is a former Duke executive and has received significant contributions from the corporation.

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