RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Duke Energy has been fined $6.6 million by North Carolina regulators for environmental violations related to the company’s coal ash spill in February 2014.
The fine covers civil penalties the company committed before, during and after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River north of Greensboro. The penalties only account for violations that Duke Energy pleaded guilty to in criminal court in May 2015.
“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality Donald R. van der Vaart said in a news release. “We are moving forward with enforcement actions against Duke Energy for not complying with environmental laws that protect North Carolina’s environment from catastrophes like the Dan River spill.”
“We will review the action taken by NCDEQ today as we continue to work as quickly as the state process will allow to safely close coal ash basins,” said Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks. “The state’s own research demonstrates that the Dan River is thriving. Drinking water always remained safe and water quality returned to normal within days of the February 2014 incident,” he said.
Many have questioned why it took the state two years to fine Duke Energy.
NCDEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder said the federal government has slowed the process.
“We were ready to issue this fine in April of 2014 more or less,” Reeder said. “The EPA asked us to join in a joint enforcement action with the federal government so we acquiesced to that,” he said.
Reeder said the state was tired of waiting.
“We decide to separate from the EPA and go at it alone because it has been 2 years and we wanted to get this taken care of and hold Duke accountable,” Reeder said.
A breakdown of the fines:
• $763,000 – Failing to take all reasonable steps to minimize or prevent any discharge or sludge disposal from the Dan River Steam Station treatment works with reasonable likelihood of adversely affecting human health or the environment from at least Jan 1, 2012 –Feb1, 2014.
• $953,000 – Failing to properly operate and maintain the Dan River Steam Station treatment works from Jan 1, 201- Feb 21, 2014.
• $70,000 – Making an outlet to waters of the State via the 48 inch storm pipe from Feb 2, 2014 – Feb 8, 2014, without having first secured a permit for the activity. (the coal ash spill)
• $3,128,000 – Making an outlet to waters of the State via the 36 inch stormwater pipe from Jan 1, 2012 – Feb 21,2014, without having first secured a permit for the activity.
• $1,710,000 – Violating the water quality standard for best usage of Class C waters, by removing best usage from the Dan River from Feb 2, 2014 – July 22, 2014.
• 6,624,000 – Total civil penalties.
Duke has also been fined $207,005 in enforcement costs.
The company has 30 days to pay the fines or fight them in court. Any money paid would go to North Carolina schools.
The toxic sludge that resulted from the spill spread 70 miles downstream. It took crews nearly a week just to stop the spill.
It sparked outrage from environmental groups who worried about the toxic substances found in the ash and its impact on water quality, crops and wildlife.
Some people living near Duke Energy’s 14 coal facilities have found contamination in their wells, but Duke says there is no proof any of it came from the ash.
The company apologized for the spill and worked to clean up the river. After months of work, crews could only remove less than 10 percent of the ash that spilled.
Six months after the spill, the state passed the Coal Ash Management Act, giving Duke Energy until 2029 at the latest to shut down and clean up every one of its ash ponds.
Duke Energy says the following studies have been conducted on the Dan River since the spill:
• Tests by the state of North Carolina, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Duke Energy demonstrate water quality in the Dan River returned to normal levels a few days after the ash release. Drinking water quality always remained safe.
• An April 2014 study by North Carolina State University detailed the river’s suitability to be used for crops and livestock.
• A July 2014 evaluation by the U.S. EPA indicated cleanup work along the river was complete. Duke Energy worked at the direction of the U.S. EPA to remove coal ash from the river and continues monitoring activities in partnership with other agencies.
• A November 2014 study by Alderman Environmental Services, one of the nation’s leading mussel experts, concluded mussel life in the river is flourishing. Ten species were identified during the study as thriving in the Dan River, and two extremely rare species were observed that had not been seen before in the Roanoke River Basin.
• A November 2014 study by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) found macroinvertebrates, a key indicator of the river’s health, were healthy up and down the Dan River. DENR sampled locations upstream and downstream of the plant and found populations to be in excellent condition.
• Since the spill, Duke Energy has conducted a major operation, under the direction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), to excavate and monitor coal ash in the river.
• The company has also performed thousands of tests from the plant to Kerr Lake in partnership with state and federal agencies to study ongoing conditions in the river. Long-term monitoring activities include sediment, fish tissue and other biological sampling at multiple points along the river.
WNCN will continue to follow the issue closely. You can see past coverage here.