RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, formally DENR, reached a $7 million settlement with Duke Energy Tuesday that holds Duke Energy accountable for groundwater contamination at all of its 14 coal ash facilities.
“This agreement holds Duke Energy accountable for past groundwater contamination and mandates that Duke Energy expeditiously clean up polluted groundwater near its coal ash sites,” DEQ Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said in a written release. “Our chief goal is to protect the environment and public health while requiring corrective action to restore groundwater quality. This settlement resolves the issue of fines for past violations and allows DEQ to commit all of its resources to overseeing Duke Energy’s clean-up process.”
In March, DEQ fined Duke Energy $25.1 million for groundwater contamination from coal ash at its Sutton Facility.
Duke Energy officials said the fine, the state’s largest ever issued for environmental damage, was unfair. The utility vigorously appealed the fine to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
“We didn’t think that DENR followed its own policies in a fair and consistent manner,” said Paige Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy.
The main dispute was centered on a DENR memo from 2011.
“The intent of the memo was in fact by the prior administration, was to prefer remediation instead of civil penalties and we think that’s an inappropriate policy and we intend to pull that policy,” said John Evans, DEQ chief deputy secretary.
After six months, the parties agreed to settle.
The settlement includes $7 million in fines and penalties for past groundwater contamination at and an estimated $10-15 million in accelerated remediation costs.
“That resolves all groundwater issues past present and future at our 14 different coal plants,” Sheehan said.
Duke Energy is also required to provide accelerated cleanup of groundwater contamination at its Sutton Plant near Wilmington, Asheville Plant, H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro and at the Belews Creek Steam Station.
“We need to go out and take care of it make sure that we contain it, and that we keep that ground water in one spot, but the good news is drinking water supplies remain safe,” said Sheehan.
The settlement requirements are in addition to Duke Energy’s obligation under the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 to close all of its coal ash ponds by 2029.
The newly reached settlement prevents the state from incurring additional legal fees associated with protracted litigation.
“I think what it does is allows us to focus all of our resources and Duke to focus our resources on the cleanup and closure of these coal ash ponds,” said Evans.
“Now that we have cleared yet another legal hurdle, that we can put our focus towards that type of work and the state can do that as well,” said Sheehan.