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Duke Energy Faces Federal Charges, Fines for Coal Ash Pollution

PHOTO: The massive Dan River coal ash spill left remnants of the toxic substance on the riverbank. Duke Energy is being charged with violating the Clean Water Act for this and other water pollution from its coal ash ponds. Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper.
PHOTO: The massive Dan River coal ash spill left remnants of the toxic substance on the riverbank. Duke Energy is being charged with violating the Clean Water Act for this and other water pollution from its coal ash ponds. Photo courtesy of Catawba Riverkeeper.
February 23, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Late Friday, federal prosecutors filed nine criminal charges against Duke Energy for the pollution caused by the company's coal ash slurry ponds and subsequent violations of the Clean Water Act.

The charges include power plants in Asheville, Charlotte, Goldsboro, Chatham County and Eden, where 39,000 tons of coal ash from Duke's Dan River plant spilled into the river.

Senior attorney D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center says North Carolina residents, faced with an energy monopoly, don't have a choice about where they purchase their power.

"You have to buy your electricity and they get to sell it to you," says Gerken. "Meanwhile, they've been doing the cheapest thing possible with their coal ash. They've been sluicing it into unlined pits in the ground next to drinking water supplies, and the inevitable has happened. They've polluted surface water and ground water; that's what these criminal charges reflect."

Immediately after the charges were announced, Duke reported it would pay more than $68 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community-service projects. The settlement has to be approved by a federal judge before it is official.

Duke Energy declined an interview for this story, but did offer a statement posted on the company's website by CEO Lynn Good.

"We have taken the steps necessary in order to improve throughout our system," wrote Good. "We've used outside engineering experts. We've used outside scientists to help inform smart solutions and we're working proactively to close all of our basins in North Carolina as rapidly and as safely as we can."

While the money paid by Duke will come from shareholders and not ratepayers, Gerkin says what matters now is whether and when the cleanup happens.

"Duke is pleading guilty to criminal violations and saying that its sorry, and that's a wonderful state," he says. "But where we need to end up is a permanent solution to its ongoing pollution of North Carolina's water and drinking water."

He says health and environmental experts are concerned about the effects of the coal ash on the state's groundwater supply. High arsenic levels have been found in the water at some sites, at 66 times the recommended maximum for drinking water. Even if a federal judge accepts Duke's proposed settlement, Gerkin says state lawsuits against the company will proceed.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC