News | September 29, 2015

Despite coal ash settlement, SELC continues pushing state, Duke Energy to follow laws

In a settlement announced today, North Carolina’s environmental agency abdicated its responsibility to ensure the public’s groundwater is protected from coal ash contamination. Instead, the recently renamed Department of Environmental Quality will accept a relatively small $7 million fine from Duke Energy for groundwater pollution at all 14 of its coal ash sites in the state. The $500,000-per-site penalty replaces the $25 million fine DEQ had previously announced for a single site, the L.V. Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington, which is a 98 percent reduction.

The agreement requires no cleanup commitments from Duke beyond what the company has already agreed to, and the utility characterized the deal as putting an end to state enforcement of all past, present, and future groundwater issues associated with its sites.

“In its first days of existence, DEQ has voluntarily prevented itself from taking action to protect North Carolinians from coal ash pollution of their drinking water by giving Duke amnesty for past, present, and future violations–even agreeing to limit the state’s ability to monitor Duke’s pollution–including at sites like Buck in Salisbury and Allen on Lake Wylie, where residents have severe concerns about their drinking water supplies,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman.

The settlement purports to resolve the state’s groundwater claims in cases the state filed in 2013 to block SELC and citizen groups from suing Duke Energy in federal court under the Clean Water Act. DEQ has never prosecuted those cases against Duke Energy, once tried to settle them without requiring Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution, and unsuccessfully asked the court to stay them. Now, DEQ has entered into a settlement agreement that would bring an end to the state’s enforcement of North Carolina laws intended to protect the state’s groundwater, again without requiring a cleanup.

In addition, the settlement agreement provides that DEQ will not enforce the law against Duke Energy to protect Sutton Lake.

“DEQ is giving Duke a pass on its pollution of Sutton Lake—an important and popular fishing lake in the Wilmington region—by promising not to enforce the law,” said Holleman.

SELC will continue to pursue groundwater protections for North Carolina citizens in its cases against Duke, which are currently before the North Carolina and federal courts.

Listen to Managing Attorney DJ Gerken break down the settlement on Western North Carolina’s NPR station, WQCS.

For more detail, read the EnergyBiz coverage of today’s hearing.