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Duke And Feds To Settle About Coal Ash Spill

DanRiverAshPipe.jpg
Appalachian Voices

Federal prosecutors announced Friday evening they filed criminal charges against Duke Energy over last year’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River. Minutes before that, Duke Energy announced the two parties had reached a settlement. WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Weekend Edition host Duncan McFadyen to explain the ramifications.

MCFADYEN: The Dan River spill happened more than a year ago. Had charges not already been filed?

BRADFORD: There’s a series of lawsuits in both North Carolina and federal court having to do with coal ash. Environmental groups are suing state regulators, state regulators are suing Duke, and environmental groups are suing Duke. Many of them actually began before the Dan River spill.

MCFADYEN: It’s a complicated web.

BRADFORD: Yeah. This is a big uh, strand, though. So, after the Dan River spill last February—and remember, a pipe broke under one of these ponds where Duke stores its coal ash, and at least 30,000 tons of ash and nearly 30 million gallons of wastewater spilled into the river—a couple of weeks after that, federal prosecutors began issuing sub poenas to Duke and state environmental regulators about “possible criminal charges.” And other than that investigation was ongoing, we haven’t known much about it until now.

MCFADYEN: The criminal charges against Duke are from that investigation?

BRADFORD: Exactly. All three U.S. Attorneys offices in North Carolina filed charges against Duke for violating the clean water act. And not just at the Dan River—they filed charges for Duke not maintaining the pipe there and for the spill, but there are also charges at the Lee Power Plant in Wayne County, the Cape Fear plant, the Asheville plant, and the Riverbend Power Plant here in the Charlotte region.

MCFADYEN: And what are the charges at those other plants?

BRADFORD: There are certain places, near the top of coal ash ponds, where the cleanest water gets discharged—so the ponds don’t fill up when it rains, for instance. But the suits accuse Duke of letting coal ash or storage water out in other places, without permits, in some cases engineering new drains for the water to spill out of the pond. For the Cape Fear plant, they’re charging Duke with not maintaining that the risers—the pipes that release that cleanest water—the utility had to do repairs last year, and pumped more than 60 million tons of water out to do the repairs. All of these are misdemeanors, for violating the Clean Water Act.

MCFADYEN: But they’re settling those charges.

BRADFORD: It looks that way. As you mentioned, even before the U.S. Attorneys announced they’d filed charges, Duke announced they’d reached a settlement. Any actual court documents are sealed, but the company reserved $102 million for legal fees this quarter and it now says roughly two-thirds of that will go toward fines, while the rest will be for mitigation and community service. And, I should say the money comes from shareholders, not ratepayers.

MCFADYEN: So, they’ll pay about $100 million—Duke’s a multi-billion dollar company—how big of a deal is this?

BRADFORD: I think it’s pretty significant for a couple of reasons, although I should say a judge still has to approve the settlement. The Dan River was the third largest coal ash spill we’ve had in the U.S., but this is the first time criminal charges have been filed—so there’s a finding by prosecutors that a company was actively negligent, and that hasn’t happened for the other ones. And, Duke has signed a document saying they’ll plead guilty to at least some of the charges. That could possibly have reverberations in some of these other court cases. The central question in all of them is some form of “has Duke’s coal ash polluted the water around it?”

MCFADYEN: With this lawsuit wrapped up, how much has Duke paid so far? And what more costs might it face?

BRADFORD: The company reports it’s spent about $20 million directly on the Dan River and its clean-up. There’s still the other lawsuits that we’ve mentioned, and this settlement wouldn’t affect other fines that may still come down from the EPA and the state environment agency. And then, state legislators passed a bill last Fall that has the company closing all 33 coal ash ponds it has at its coal plants around the state over the next 15 years. Duke has set aside more than $3 billion for that, but has said it could cost up to $10 billion.

MCFADYEN: And, finally, what’s been the reaction from environmental groups?

BRADFORD: Well, it’s related to that last point. State regulators still need to decide how much clean-up Duke will have to do in relation to that state law. Here’s Amy Adams from the environmental group Appalachian Voices.

ADAMS: What we still haven’t seen and what we’re still waiting for and what’s sort of the more important resolution here is how are we going to get these sites cleaned up? This answers the question of negligence, but this does not address when the sites will be cleaned up across North Carolina.

BRADFORD: Duke’s going to dig out all of the ash from four sites, including three of the ones in this lawsuit—Riverbend, Asheville, and Dan River. The state still needs to determine how they’re going to close the rest of their storage ponds—will they have to remove all of the ash, or can they leave some in place, but just drain the water. That’s, I think, the biggest fight remaining.

MCFADYEN: WFAE’s Ben Bradford, with possibly a bit of resolution in what’s been a year-long saga following the Dan River coal ash spill. Thanks, Ben.

BRADFORD: Thank you.