Settlement Reached |in Duke Coal Ash Spill

     (CN) – Environmental regulators in North Carolina reached a settlement Tuesday with Duke Energy that holds the company responsible for coal ash contamination of groundwater and requires accelerated cleanup at four sites.
     The settlement, crafted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, includes $7 million in fines and penalties for past groundwater contamination at all of Duke Energy’s 14 coal ash facilities and an estimated $10 to $15 million in accelerated remediation costs at its Sutton Plant near Wilmington, Asheville Plant, H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro and at the Belews Creek Steam Station.
     The 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 and clean up any environmental damage caused by improper coal ash storage. Along with resolving the legal case, the estimated $20 million settlement prevents the state from incurring additional legal fees associated with protracted litigation.
     “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,” said DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart.
     “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,” van der Vaart said.
     In March 2015, DEQ fined Duke Energy $25.1 million for groundwater contamination from coal ash at its Sutton facility. Duke Energy challenged DEQ in court over its ability to issue fines for groundwater contamination based on a 2011 policy memo.
     The 2011 policy memo, which was written by the former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration, allowed penalties to be assessed under certain circumstances. However, communication between the Perdue administration and Duke Energy, which was discovered during the legal process, makes it clear that the intent of the memo was to take corrective action instead of issuing fines.
     Current Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has announced that it will immediately rescind the 2011 policy to clarify that state government has all the tools required to enforce the law, penalizing future polluters and requiring clean-up of contaminated sites.
     “North Carolina looks forward to working with all energy providers to supply clean, affordable power to the citizens of the state while protecting the environment and public health,” said van der Vaart.
     Duke Energy has taken several steps in recent months to address the coal ash problem. It has submitted comprehensive groundwater assessments for each of the 14 coal plants in the state, announced that the Electric Power Research Institute will conduct a comprehensive study of the coal ash recycling market and available technologies, and recommended excavating basins in locations throughout the state.
     The company has also announced plans to retire the coal-fired Asheville Plant in four to five years and modernize its generation and transmission system in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina.
     “We welcome the opportunity to put this issue behind us, allowing us to continue focusing on closing coal ash basins as quickly as the state process will allow,” Duke Energy said in a statement Tuesday.
     “Operating our system safely and protecting the health and well-being of our plant neighbors are our highest priorities. That’s why we closely monitor groundwater at our facilities, have shared the data with the state for decades, and acted to ensure that neighbors continue to have high-quality water supplies. Ultimately, closing ash basins in ways that protect people and the environment will address groundwater concerns,” the statement said.

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