Coal Ash News and Media
On May 14, 2015, Duke Energy pled guilty to 9 criminal misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act. The charges stemmed from a widened investigation, after the Dan River disaster, that found violations at Duke-owned facilities in Buncombe, Chatham, Wayne and Gaston Counties in North Carolina. Duke negotiated a plea bargain that included $68 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation projects. Duke’s fine, totaling over $102 million, is the largest criminal fine at the federal level in NC history. In addition to this historic fine, Duke will also be on probation for five years and will report its coal ash compliance in five states to federal parole officers.
Duke Energy is under a lot of pressure these days. Coal ash has become a serious financial and public relations liability for the corporation, yet so far, the nation’s largest utility isn’t planning to adequately clean up its mess across the Southeast. The impacts of coal ash on communities and waterways continue, and the price of business as usual is increasing – but it doesn’t seem to be enough so far to drive necessary action.
Lisa Evans is an attorney specializing in hazardous waste law. Ms. Evans has been active in hazardous waste litigation and advocacy for over 25 years. Since 2006, she has been a senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice. Lisa’s blog was originally posted here.
You have to acknowledge the tenacity of Rep. David McKinley (R, WV). Just three months (and only 42 working days) after EPA signed its first-ever coal ash rule, McKinley has introduced a new coal ash bill that guts the new EPA rule and protects the polluters who finance his campaigns.
During a hearing last week on McKinley’s bill, it became clear that, though the EPA’s final coal ash rule already gave much away to the utilities, the House majority won’t abide by any reasonable rules governing toxic ash disposal. The result is an exceedingly dangerous bill that will permanently give polluters a free pass to dump the second largest industrial waste stream in the nation without any accountability to the communities they are fouling.
So how does the new bill eliminate, weaken and/or delay coal ash requirements critical to protecting public health and safety?
Let us count the ways:
Late Friday afternoon, after many had gone home for the weekend, news broke that The Department of Justice filed federal charges in all three of NC’s federal district courts against Duke Energy for violations of the Clean Water Act. Duke is charged with 9 misdemeanor violations for polluting four of NC’s rivers. In order to settle the charges, Duke Energy’s plea bargain includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation projects – totaling over $102 million, which already garnered widespread media coverage after Duke’s announcement Feb. 18, 2015 in a financial disclosure statement. No individuals will be charged in connection to the violations. The deal will ultimately need the approval of a federal judge.
The federal grand jury probe has been ongoing since last February when Duke dumped nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. That’s a total of 140,000 tons of toxic waste and wastewater combined into the sensitive eco-system of the Dan River. Four of the federal misdemeanor charges are for the Dan River ash disaster. Additional charges accuse Duke Energy of illegally draining coal ash and wastewater at three other power plants: the Catawba River from the Riverbend power plant just west of Charlotte; the Neuse River from the H.F. Lee plant; the French Broad River from the Asheville plant. The charges include failure of Duke officials to maintain treatment system equipment at the Dan River plant and the Cape Fear power plant in Chatham County.
In a plea deal to match other major environmental disaster plea deals, Duke Energy appears to be expecting fines around $100 million to resolve, in part, the federal criminal investigation initiated after the massive Dan River coal ash disaster in 2014. Official announcements are pending in the days to come about the criminal charges, but the $100 million fines were discovered in federal disclosure filings and a Duke press release on Feb. 18 and were reported by the Charlotte Observer. The $100 million that Duke Energy disclosed in its earning report as “probable financial exposure” is expected to go to fines, community-service, and mitigation projects.
It has been just one year since a Duke Energy facility had an impoundment failure, dumping up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The company already reported spending $20 million to clean up the Dan River site itself, although 90% of the ash still remains in the river. In addition to the federal criminal probe on this disaster, Duke Energy is being sued by multiple organizations including SACE for its ongoing coal ash pollution at the Dan River site. This case has yet to be settled or resolved. A suite of other conservation groups and Riverkeepers represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center have also taken Duke Energy to court to resolve coal ash contamination problems at its 13 other leaky impoundments. Yesterday’s financial disclosure does nothing to resolve these cases or indicate financial culpability to settle them independently.