Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

Duke expands coal ash cleanup, but leaves N.C. communities in danger

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by amy
Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

Duke Energy announced plans for its future coal ash cleanup efforts. But the fates of several coal ash sites threatening North Carolina communities remain unclear.

On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it plans to excavate coal ash from ponds at three power plant sites in North Carolina, along with two more at its South Carolina facilities.

But the fates of several sites that pose significant threats to drinking water and nearby communities remain unclear.

Duke is already required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act to clean up four sites deemed “high-priority” by lawmakers. By recommending additional sites be excavated, Duke is committed to cleaning up ponds at seven of its 14 power plants across the state. That is, as long as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is on board.

The total amount of coal ash now planned for excavation is 35.4 tons of ash. Duke plans to move the excavated ash to lined landfills or use it as structural fill material.

Although the company has now committed to cleaning up the ash at half of the sites in North Carolina, the majority of the ash polluting the state’s waterways remains largely unaddressed. As for the seven sites not included in today’s announcement, the company says further environmental testing is needed to assess contamination and determine clean up plans.

Importantly, the sites Duke has not committed to excavating are the largest in the state, including the 12.5 million tons of ash at Belews Creek, the 11.5 million tons at G.G. Allen, and the 27 million tons of coal ash stored at the Buck and Marshall plants. That amounts to more than 70 million tons — the bulk of Duke’s coal ash — still sitting in leaking, unlined ponds seeping and discharging into our waterways.

Around these unaddressed sites, nearly 500 households have been warned by the N.C. Department of Health that their well water is unsafe for drinking or to use for cooking due to contamination possibly associated with nearby coal ash ponds.

While Duke’s announcement is welcome news for the communities living near Moncure, Goldsboro, Lumberton and those who rely on the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers for drinking water, others worry they’re being left behind and are concerned about potential harm caused by coal ash stored in landfills — and who is responsible for it.

A year and a half after the Dan River spill, Duke is certainly taking steps in the right direction. But there is still much work to be done for the company to prove it is the “good neighbor” it claims to be.

As the company’s coal ash cleanup efforts expand, we have just a few questions: Does Duke plan to leave more than 70 million tons of toxic ash in unlined ponds polluting North Carolina’s waterways? Will the company ensure the health and safety of workers and residents throughout the clean up process?

Until Duke makes an announcement that takes into account the safety of all its current and future neighbors, we’ll hold our applause.

Learn about the threat of coal ash pollution. Stay up to date by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Residents Near Duke Ash Ponds Told To Not Drink Their Water

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Utility pleads guilty to separate water pollution charges

By Sarah Kellogg

Jeff Keiser and his wife, Kim, have lived in a small neighborhood in Belmont, N.C., near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen power plant, for 15 years. Although their community is surrounded on three sides by coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, the Keisers have used their tap water just like anyone else. But that changed in late April when they and their neighbors started receiving letters from the state health department advising them not to drink or cook with their water.

“It was pretty frightening for us to hear all of our neighbors getting do not drink letters from the state,” recalls Keiser. “We had been drinking the water with no worry at all, now we’re scared for our health.”

The do-not-drink orders were a result of mandatory water tests conducted by Duke Energy and required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act. As of late May, wells had been tested near eleven of Duke’s fourteen coal ash pond locations. Of the 207 wells tested by May —all located within 1,000 feet of the ponds —191 were deemed unsafe to drink. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens. The Belmont community received 83 do-not-drink orders, the most of any location.

Duke Energy claims that the elements found in the wells are naturally occurring and not a result of groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds, although the utility agreed to supply affected residents with bottled water until the source of the contamination is determined.

Keiser and other residents feel certain that Duke is to blame for their bad water. “I do feel like it’s their ash ponds that have created this whole mess,” he says. His neighbor, Barbara Morales, who also received a do-not-drink notice, told the L.A. Times, “Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water, but they need to take responsibility.”

Two weeks after the first round of water tests was released, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to nine violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its North Carolina coal ash sites and agreed to pay a $102 million fine. The lawsuit was unrelated to the well water results, but rather was the result of a federal investigation that began after Duke spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014.

Separate lawsuits against Duke, filed by the state in 2013 for violations of the Clean Water Act at all 14 of the utility’s North Carolina coal ash sites, are still pending.

Duke’s guilty verdict and the do-not-drink orders come on the heels of a controversial wastewater discharge permit renewal for three of Duke Energy’s N.C. plants, including G.G. Allen. The state’s Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke charge that the utility is violating the discharge permits at all of their plants due to toxic seeps from their coal ash ponds leaking into surface water and drinking water. Although the state is suing Duke Energy for the violations, it issued new draft permits that would make all current and future seeps from the coal ash ponds legal. As of publication, the permits have not been finalized, but hundreds of citizens submitted comments in April urging the state to limit the amount of coal ash pollution Duke Energy can discharge.

In Belmont and other communities, residents continue to process the news that their well water is undrinkable. “If we wanted to move, we’d feel obligated to let the purchasers of the house know about the issue with Duke and the drinking water in our neighborhood,” Keiser reflects. “That is very scary because this is our most valuable asset.”

Keep the Clean Water Act going strong

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - posted by sandra

Is the Obama administration ready to continue modernizing the landmark law?

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the release of its long-awaited Clean Water Rule, which clarifies the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

The finalized rule ends a decade of confusion; a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought into doubt the definition of “navigable waters,” which the EPA had historically interpreted to include areas connected to waters by tributaries or other smaller streams.

As The Los Angeles Times reports:

Before the new rule, up to 60 percent of American streams and millions of acres of wetlands were potentially overlooked by the Clean Water Act, EPA officials say. One in three Americans … use drinking water affected by these sources that lacked clear protection from pollution before the rule change, according to the agency.

Is the Obama administration ready to continue the trend of strengthening and modernizing the Clean Water Act — the crucial environmental law that came about due to levels of water pollution that seem unfathomable today?

As the EPA pursues updating the Effluent Limitation Guidelines, which provide standards on wastewater discharge from power plants, we hope that is indeed the case. Sixty percent of water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants alone, and these guidelines would also include natural gas and nuclear facilities.

The primary reason the EPA is even updating these guidelines is because clean water groups sued the agency for not having updated the rule since 1982.

These out-of-date standards do not contain federally enforceable limits on toxic heavy metals. Any limits are left for individual states to decide; as a result, 70 percent of current Clean Water Act permits for power plants do not have limits for heavy metals.

Even worse, the water pollution from these plants has become more dangerous since many coal-fired power plants have installed air pollution technology that “scrubs” emissions before they leave the smokestack. This is good news for air quality, but not for water quality. The scrubbed pollution has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is in waste impoundments where these pollutants supposedly “settle” to the bottom. Power plants are then allowed to dump water from these impoundments into our river and lakes, which sometimes serve as drinking water sources.

Heavy metals are dangerous at varying levels to wildlife and human health. The industry is also discovering that the chemicals used in the “scrubbing” process can interact with chemicals from drinking water treatment plants to create trihalomethanes, which have been linked to bladder cancer.

The EPA released draft options of the Effluent Limitation Guidelines in 2013 and received more 160,000 comments, most asking for the strong technological options that would create zero waste. The agency is planning to release the final standard this fall. But there is real concern among clean water advocates that the final rule may not pursue the most technically feasible option for stopping pollution from heavy metals and other chemicals, as required by the Clean Water Act.

We are going to need your help to crank up the pressure on the White House to make sure the EPA listens to us water-drinkers as it works to finalize the rule for this fall. Sign up here to receive updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, too.

Solidarity in the Tar Heel State

Monday, June 1st, 2015 - posted by interns
Local citizens rally against injustice as Appalachian Voices' N.C. Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams addresses the crowd.

Local citizens rally against injustice as Appalachian Voices North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams addresses the crowd.

Julia Simcoe is a senior sociology major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She recently finished a “semester abroad” at Appalachian State University and is honored to intern with Appalachian Voices this summer.

Last Thursday, local residents and social justice advocates held two well-attended events in Walnut Cove and Raleigh, N.C. The theme of both events was opposition to pollution in low-income communities of color, and to show that, through solidarity, citizens can work within the system to create lasting changes.

Representatives of the Stokes County, state, and national levels of the NAACP spoke at the conference. Karenna Gore, Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and daughter of Al Gore, also spoke at the event.

Located in the greater Winston-Salem area, Walnut Cove is a predominantly African-American, low-income community. A press conference in the morning at the Rising Star Baptist Church focused on the negative health effects of coal ash ponds at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, and the state’s recent decision to drill a core sample to assess natural gas reserves in the same community.

Many fear that results from this test site will lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the community which has already suffered from the impacts of Duke Energy’s coal ash.

“In the past 20 years, our drinking water was brown, smelled of rotten eggs, and also had calcium and mineral deposits,” said local resident Lydia Prysock.

Though community members eventually fought for cleaner water and improvements were made, Prysock believes their water should not have been polluted in the first place–and should not be threatened further with fracking.

“Water is our God-given right. Even though we have to pay for the piping and the electricity to run it, we still have the right to good, clean drinking water.”

Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, traveled from the organization’s Baltimore headquarters to attend the events and bolster the community’s resistance to pollution. Fracking and other industrial pollutants are “disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, which is unfortunately a national trend,” she said.

Black and white community members and protesters stood behind the speaker’s podium to show solidarity, holding signs that read “Water = life,” “Belews Creek Is Not Low Priority: Don’t Leave Us Behind,” and “Fracking = toxic.” One sign read, “We are high priority.” For me, this slogan invoked the nationally chanted “Black Lives Matter.”

Hours later, many of the same participants held a “Moral Monday” event rally in Raleigh on the grounds of the legislative building. Though the rally focused primarily on expanding Medicaid for North Carolinians, representatives from Stokes County spoke and connected their pollution to problems of health and corporate greed.

The NAACP’s Patterson urged the crowd to see connections between racism, healthcare, and pollution. “Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant,” she said. “African-American children are five times more likely to enter into the hospital from asthma attacks and three times likely to die from asthma attacks, so this is definitely a moral issue.”

Local Walnut Cove resident Caroline Armijo also made the trek to Raleigh, and spoke to the experiences of community members.

“We have suffered an extraordinary amount of premature deaths because of coal ash in our community. A friend of mine discovered a stage three brain tumor at the age of 34. She lives on Pine Hall road, which is the road of Belews Creek Steam Station. This is Duke Energy largest steam station and also the home of Duke Energy largest unlined coal ash pond. It is 342 acres large, 12 stories deep, and it contains 39 million tons of coal ash,” she said.

“Now, Walnut Cove has decided unanimously to test drill for fracking and the land around this coal ash pond is owned by people not within our county and they are eager to frack this land. We have worked for 3 years to clean this coal ash and if that pond fails, we will never be able to clean it up and Stokes County will never be able to recover.”

Karenna Gore undoubtedly voiced the opinion of many when she said that a purpose of these moments of community solidarity should be to reverse the “short-term, financial gain for corporations above the welfare of people” that is the status quo.

Around and inside the capitol building, demonstrators chanted: “People united will never be defeated,” and “Whose house? The people’s house.”

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

Update May 31, 2015:

More residents have received results from their well water tests and 166 well owners out of the 207 wells tested so far have been told not to drink their water.

Duke Energy still denies that their leaking coal ash ponds have contaminated neighbors’ wells, but the company has agreed to supply bottled water to families who have been told that they can not safely drink or cook with their water. Duke is supplying a gallon per person today.

Duke Energy Faces Historic Fines for Coal Ash Pollution

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By AV Staff

Duke Energy has agreed to pay $102 million for federal criminal charges stemming from violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its 14 coal ash sites in North Carolina.

The nine misdemeanors cite illegal discharges of coal ash wastewater from holding ponds, as well as equipment and upkeep violations. North Carolina, like the rest of the country, has very few limits on the amount of pollution power plants can directly discharge into waterways. This includes coal ash, which contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and selenium.

According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Prior to the Dan River coal ash spill, even self-reported violations by Duke were not penalized, but in the wake of the ensuing federal investigation, the state began issuing a flurry of citations.

In February and March, the state issued the utility more penalties for groundwater pollution: a $25.1 million fine at its Sutton plant in Wilmington, the largest state penalty ever issued for environmental damages, and citations at a coal ash pond in Asheville, which are still awaiting response from Duke.

Virginia Environmental Chief Supporting Weaker Coal Ash Rule

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 - posted by cat

Amy Adams, N.C. Campaign Coordinator, 828-262-1500,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

The following is a statement from Amy Adams in response to testimony today by David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, to the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy regarding “Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2015.” Adams is the lead on Appalachian Voices’ coal ash initiative and is a former supervisor with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“In no way is this bill an ‘improvement’ of the new federal rule for coal ash disposal. In fact, it completely strips away health standards and public access to information, leaving citizens in the dark and vulnerable to ongoing health hazards.

“It’s beyond belief that the head of the agency charged with protecting Virginia’s environment and public welfare is up there in D.C. supporting it.

“There are people whose health is already compromised likely due to decades of coal ash pollution, yet David Paylor is supporting this bill that would shelter industry interests from accountability. As a former agency regulator myself, I can tell you this goes completely against the grain of what a public servant should do.”


Permits and Payments: Will Duke Energy ever stop polluting?

Friday, March 13th, 2015 - posted by sarah
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced a record-high $25 million fine for pollution at Duke Energy's Sutton plant. The agency also updated coal ash permits to at other sites to protect the company. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced a record-high $25 million fine for pollution at Duke Energy’s Sutton plant (above). The agency also updated coal ash permits at other sites to monitor pollution — and protect the company. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

This week, Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources added a new chapter to the coal ash saga.

On the heels of recent news that Duke Energy agreed to pay $102 million to resolve the federal charges for the company’s criminally negligent handling of coal ash at four out of 14 of its coal plants in North Carolina, DENR announced Tuesday that it is charging Duke Energy $25.1 million for coal ash pollution at the Sutton power plant near Wilmington.

$25.1 million is the largest fine DENR has ever issued, and though the fine is substantial, it’s long overdue and does nothing to remedy the pollution problems that persist at the Sutton site (not to mention Duke’s 13 other sites). For a company that made $1.9 billion in profits last year, $25 million isn’t breaking the bank, but it is making a statement. Which raises the question, is it just a statement, or is it a precursor to Duke finally cleaning up its coal ash across North Carolina?

A few days prior to DENR’s announcement of the fine, the agency released updated permit drafts, proposed to “better protect water quality near coal ash ponds until closure plans are approved.” Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, that’s the best part about the permit rewrites, they sound good.

Unpermitted leaks and seeps at Duke’s coal ash ponds that led to the criminal charges filed last month, will now be permitted as legal discharges. Though permitting the pollution will force monitoring, it does nothing to stop or even stymie the toxic discharges.

North Carolina, like the rest of the country, has very few limits on the amount of pollution power plants can discharge directly into our waterways. In fact, the federal rules regulating direct discharges from power plants have not been updated in 32 years, and those rules allow unlimited discharges of many of the toxic constituents in coal ash pollution, including mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium. By rewriting Duke’s permits, DENR is resolving violations of the Clean Water Act, not by stopping the illegal discharges, but by issuing permits for them.

Accompanying the new permits and record-high payments are vague promises from both DENR and Duke Energy that the coal ash will be cleaned up eventually. Though the state’s coal ash law requires closure plans for all sites by the end of 2016, if a site is categorized as low priority, Duke will be allowed to simply “cap-in-place” its coal ash. “Cap-in-place” is a questionable practice that comes with the risk of continued contamination from ponds near waterways or sitting in groundwater. For the 10 communities that have yet to be categorized as low, medium, or high priority, this is a huge concern.

It appears that Duke Energy is working hard to clean up its image and settle the numerous lawsuits it faces. On Tuesday, the company announced that it would pay $146 million to settle a lawsuit related to the company’s 2012 merger with Progress Energy. Once again, the sum is substantial in comparison to similar settlement agreements, indicating that Duke Energy’s deceit was substantial in this case as well.

Both DENR and Duke Energy want North Carolinians to believe they are doing the right thing. Only time will tell if the company will uphold its vague promises and stop polluting North Carolina communities and their drinking water with coal ash.

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

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