Duke Energy fined $6.6 million for coal ash spill by N.C. regulators


researchers survey the Dan River site in 2014 Credit: Duke Energy

RALEIGH – Nearly two years to the day of the Dan River coal ash spill, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality announced Tuesday that it has issued Duke Energy a $6.6 million fine for environmental violations related to the spill at the utility’s Dan River plant in Eden, N.C. DEQ issued the fine by itself, backing out of an agreement with the federal government to jointly enforce penalties, saying federal action was taking too long.

Duke Energy received notice late Monday of the fine, which covers civil penalties the company committed before, during and after the spill. Duke Energy pleaded guilty to criminal fines in federal court in May 2015.  More fines could be on the way, though. In the nine-page penalty assesment sent to Duke on Monday, the agency reserved the right to issue additional fines for other violations associated with the spill.

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said in a statement. “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.”

Credit: NC Department of Environmental Quality

Credit: NC Department of Environmental Quality

The department decided to move forward with fining Duke even though they made a deal with the federal government in March 2014 to jointly enforce Duke’s violations. With this month being the two year anniversary of the spill, DEQ acted without federal regulators as an effort to move the process along and avoid further delays, saying they had all the information they needed to proceed.

“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,” stated Duke Energy in a press release issued Tuesday morning. “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. The company took responsibility and quickly stopped the discharge and permanently plugged the 48 and 36 inch stormwater pipes at the site.  At the Dan River facility and across the state, we’re making strong progress in closing basins in ways that protect people and the environment, comply with state and federal coal ash laws, minimize impact to communities, and manage cost.”

Duke Energy provides power to approximately 3.9 million customers in North Carolina and South Carolina. The power is generated through a combination of nuclear, natural gas, renewables and hydroelectric generation, but also 14 coal-fired plants. In 2014, a pipe underneath an ash basin at a retired coal plant in Eden, N.C. dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. While no one was hurt or killed and no drinking water affected by the spill, the clean-up continues after two years. As many as three times per week, 60-car trains haul more than 100 tons of ash per train from the Dan River site to an off-site landfill.

Duke Energy is also excavating ash from four other operating and closed plants in North Carolina. The utility has also announced plans to retire coal-fired units at the Asheville plant within the next five years, replacing that generation with natural gas units.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

To date, the EPA and environmental researchers report that they have not found long-term impact to fish, wildlife or humans and determined the water safe for livestock and agriculture. However, the ongoing health of the river will be carefully watched by regulators in North Carolina and Virginia with any damage covered under a natural resource trustee agreement Duke signed onto with the trustees of the Dan River, comprising the two states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.