MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Duke Energy Fined $25 Million Over Coal Ash Pollution

Published by MAC on 2015-03-14
Source: Environmental News Service, Associated Press (2015-03-12)

Duke Energy Hit With Record $25 Million Coal Ash Fine

Environmental News Service (ENS)

12 March 2015 

RALEIGH, North Carolina – North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has handed Duke Energy Progress a record penalty for environmental damages. The utility was fined $25.1 million for groundwater contamination from coal ash at the Sutton Plant on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.

Under the North Carolina constitution, proceeds from Tuesday’s fine will go to a statewide fund for public schools.

Coal ash is the waste formed from burning coal in power plants to make electricity. The ash is stored in giant ponds near power plants, often adjacent to waterways. It contains toxic substances such as mercury, arsenic, lead and chromium.

The second largest industrial waste stream in the United States, the toxics in coal ash have been linked to heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.

DENR calculated the amount of Duke’s fine based on state laws that allow fines to be assessed for continuous violations of the state’s groundwater standards.

The coal ash pollutants that are considered the greatest public health risk, such as thallium, selenium, arsenic and boron, carried the stiffest penalties, state officials said.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” said DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart.

“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide,” he said.

In September 2014, the Coal Ash Management Act became law in North Carolina, putting the state on a path to closing all the utility’s coal ash ponds.

The Sutton Plant began operation as a coal-fired electric generating station in 1954. The three coal units were retired in 2013 as a new natural gas-fired unit came online at the site.

In August 2014, DENR sent Duke Energy Progress a notice of violation and intent to enforce for Sutton, calling it “the legally required first step toward issuing the utility a fine for violations of the state’s groundwater contamination laws.”

That action followed the filing in 2013 of lawsuits that focused on stopping the violations at Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

State officials calculated the penalty by determining the number of days specific constituents exceeded a groundwater quality standard, multiplied by a daily penalty amount.

At Sutton, the state agency determined that Duke Energy allowed a host of coal ash contaminants to leach into the groundwater at the facility for years.

In November 2014, DENR reclassified Sutton Lake as a public resource instead of an industrial cooling pond. The lake, which receives coal ash wastewater discharges from the Sutton plant ash ponds, is now considered to be “waters of the state,” a classification that means the lake will be protected by more stringent water quality standards.

The reclassification followed a document review during which records were found indicating that while the water body met the legal definition for waters of the state, previous department leadership decided to disregard that determination.

As a result of the reclassification, the state agency gave Duke Energy 60 days’ notice that its wastewater discharge permit would be reopened. The reclassification may mean additional treatment conditions are placed in the discharge permit or other environmental permits will be required in the future to ensure the health of the lake.

The largest electric power holding company in the United States, Duke Energy has 30 days to respond to the fine and may choose to appeal it to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

But the $25.1 million penalty could be followed by more state and federal fines imposed on Duke Energy for its handling of coal ash.

State groundwater violations at other Duke Energy facilities could result in additional fines against the utility.

On February 2, 2014, between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water waste were released at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station near Eden, North Carolina.

Penalties for violations of the utility’s federal Clean Water Act permit will be addressed through an enforcement agreement DENR has established with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In December 2014 the EPA published the first federal regulations on coal ash. Although weaker than North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act, the rules do reinforce the responsibility of coal ash impoundment owners.

Today, House Republicans released draft legislation that they said would add certainty to the EPA’s coal ash disposal rules.

Sponsored by Congressman David McKinley, a West Virgina Republican, the measure would build upon the EPA’s December rule, its supporters said.

McKinley’s bill would allow states to adopt the EPA standards and enforce them or stronger standards. The EPA would be able to set up enforcement programs in states that do not comply.

Citizens could still sue utilities, but McKinley’s bill would not require utilities to publicly disclose information about the coal ash ponds, as the EPA’s rule requires.

More than 200 contaminated sites and spills have been documented among the more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps across the country, according to the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice.


Duke Energy Fined $25 Million Over Coal Ash Pollution

By Mitch Weiss

Associated Press

10 March 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina environmental officials said Tuesday that they are fining Duke Energy $25 million over pollution that has been seeping into groundwater for years from a pair of coal ash pits at a retired power plant.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources called it the state's largest penalty for environmental damages. It issued the fine over ongoing contamination at the L.V. Sutton Electric Plant outside Wilmington. The site includes a pair of unlined dumps estimated to hold 2.6 million tons of ash.

The state touted the fine as an important development to hold Duke accountable for years of pollution.

"Today's enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash," said Donald R. van der Vaart, the department's secretary.

But environmental groups said the fine doesn't force Duke to clean up the pollution — something they've been trying to get the $50 billion Charlotte-based company to do for years. Without that, groundwater near Flemington, a largely working-class community, will remain contaminated, said Kemp Burdette, executive director of the nonprofit Cape Fear River Watch.

"A $25 million fine doesn't do anything to clean up the contamination caused by Duke's coal ash ponds," Burdette said.

"They're not forcing Duke to start treating groundwater, or start doing something to clean up the contamination. What they need to be doing is forcing them to clean it up. If they want to fine them, fine. The important thing here is getting the groundwater cleaned up," he said.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy has 30 days to appeal the fine.

The company did not immediately respond to email or phone messages Tuesday.

The state said monitoring wells near Duke's dumps at Sutton showed readings exceeding state groundwater standards or boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese and other chemicals. Thallium was used for decades as the active ingredient in rat poison until it was banned because it is highly toxic.

With thallium, the state said it determined that Duke allowed the toxic chemical to "leach into groundwater at the Sutton facility for 1,668 days."

Duke's 32 coal ash dumps scattered at 14 sites across the state have been under intense scrutiny since last year, when a pipe collapse at the company's plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. The ash, which is the waste left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains toxic heavy metals.

North Carolina lawmakers approved new legislation last year requiring Duke to dig up or cap all of its coal ash dumps by 2029.

And federal prosecutors recently filed multiple criminal charges against Duke over years of illegal pollution leaking from coal ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants.

The three U.S. Attorney's Offices covering the state charged Duke with nine misdemeanor counts involving violations of the Clean Water Act. The prosecutors say the nation's largest electricity company engaged in unlawful dumping at coal-fired power plants in Eden, Moncure, Asheville, Goldsboro and Mt. Holly.

Duke has said that it has already negotiated a plea agreement under which it will admit guilt and pay $102 million in fines, restitution and community service. The company said the costs of the settlement will be borne by its shareholders, not passed on to its electricity customers.

While Sutton was not one of the plants, state water quality officials knew for years about the contamination at the unlined ash pits but took no enforcement action until August 2013 — after the Southern Environmental Law Center, on the behalf of citizens group, tried to sue Duke for violating the Clean Water Act.

"The easiest thing for Duke Energy is to write a check...But this proposed fine does not eliminate or clean up one ounce of coal ash pollution," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the environmental legal group.


Duke Energy slammed with record $25.1 million coal ash fine

By Taft Wireback

http://www.news-record.com/news/dan_river/state-hits-duke-energy-with-largest-ever-million-coal-ash/article_7c99db62-c749-11e4-930c-6b0faa59971d.html

10 March 2015

Duke Energy took another hit for its coal-ash handling practices Tuesday when state regulators levied a $25.1 million fine against one of its retired plants near Wilmington.

North Carolina officials said they imposed the largest fine in state history for environmental damages because of the severity and duration of groundwater pollution near the coal-fired L.V. Sutton Plant.

They based the fine on the length of time coal ash contamination continued in the groundwater, the harmful characteristics of the chemicals detected near the plant, and the overall amount of damage to the groundwater. State government’s cost to investigate the problem also was included in the fine, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a news release.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” DENR Secretary Donald van der Vaart said Tuesday.

As a former Duke Energy employee for nearly 30 years, Gov. Pat McCrory has faced criticism over the past year by environmentalists who allege that his administration has been too soft on the coal ash issue, allegations he and others in his administration hotly deny.

If and when Duke Energy pays the fine, proceeds would go to a statewide fund for public schools as required by the state constitution, DENR officials said.

Duke Energy has 30 days to pay up or appeal.

The utility was apparently caught off guard by the fine and had no immediate reaction.

Company officials are just “digesting this now” and cannot immediately say whether they think the fine is just or excessive, and whether they might file an appeal, Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in a Tuesday afternoon email.

But Sheehan said the utility believes it has fixed any coal ash problems at the Sutton plant, which was closed in 2013, that might jeopardize its neighbors.

“We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed,” she said.

Groundwater is the slowly moving flow underground that often provides well water for people in rural and suburban areas.

The state fine comes barely two weeks after the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act in its handling of coal ash stored in ponds at the retired Dan River Steam Station near Eden, and at other plants in Buncombe, Chatham, Gaston and Wayne counties.

When the federal case was unveiled Feb. 20, Duke Energy announced immediately that it had reached a tentative settlement of the federal charges, including $102 million in penalties and five years of corporate probation.

Tuesday’s state sanctions, unlike the federal charges, are civil penalties, not allegations of criminal misconduct.

Coal ash became a pressing political and governmental issue in North Carolina after a large-scale spill from a storage pond at the closed Dan River plant. That spill went directly into the river through a ruptured, stormwater pipe on Feb. 2, 2014.

The new fines from state government stem from underground seepage at two unlined ponds near the Wilmington plant where coal ash from decades of power-making is stored. The utility estimates those ponds hold 6.3 million tons of ash.

Coal-fired plants burn the pulverized fuel at great heat to help make electricity, and the ash is what is left. It contains relatively small amounts of material that can be toxic in the large quantities Duke Energy and other utilities store them in ponds, often next to a lake or river.

State regulators alleged in documents supporting the fine Tuesday that the Sutton ponds leaked seven substances detected at unsafe levels in required monitoring wells nearby.

They said problem chemicals included excessive levels of arsenic at one test well; boron at nine wells; iron at three wells; manganese at six wells; selenium at one well; thallium at two wells; and dissolved solids at one well.

Coal ash pollution persisted in the test wells for varying lengths of time, ranging from a low of one year for an arsenic-contaminated test well to five years of boron pollution at nine test sites.

The seven substances vary in the level of threat they pose to human health, but they all can be harmful in sufficient quantities and concentrations.

Tuesday’s fine against the utility’s Progress division applies only to the Sutton plant, one of 14 sites across North Carolina where the utility stores coal ash submerged in unlined ponds and where similar leakage problems have been alleged.

Problems at those sites could result in additional fines against the utility, DENR officials said.

“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving very expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide,” said Donald van der Vaart, the state DENR secretary.

Coal-fired plants in the Greensboro region with storage ponds include the retired Dan River facility and another Duke Energy site that continues to operate at Belews Creek, northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County.

A state law the General Assembly passed last year requires Duke Energy to close all its coal ash ponds by 2029 but calls on the utility to eliminate those at Sutton, Dan River and two other “priority sites” within five years.

“We are working quickly to close coal ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater,” Sheehan, the Duke Energy spokeswoman, said in her email. “We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites.”

State environmental officials slammed Duke Energy on Tuesday with a $25.1 million penalty for coal ash pollution at a retired coal-fired plant near Wilmington.

State officials said the fine for ground water contamination near the shuttered Sutton plant is the state's largest-ever fine for environmental damages of any sort.

The fine was computed based on the length of time that coal-ash contamination continued, the harmful characteristics of the chemicals that make up coal ash, and the overall amount of damage to groundwater near the plant. State government's cost to investigate the problem also was included in the fine, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in a press release.

The payment will go to a statewide fund for public schools, DENR officials said.

Duke Energy apparently was caught off guard by the fine, and had no immediate reaction to its scope or fairness.

The utility is just "digesting this now" and cannot immediately say whether it believes the proposed fine is just or excessive, or whether the company might file an appeal, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said in a Tuesday afternoon email.

Sheehan said the company believes it has fixed any coal-ash problems at the Sutton plant that might have endangered its neighbors.

"We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed," Sheehan said.

The fine against the utility's Progress division applies only to the Sutton plant, one of 14 sites where the utility stores coal submerged in unlined ponds and where similar leakage problems have been alleged.

Problems at those sites could result in additional fines against the utility, DENR officials said.

"In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving very expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide," said Donald van der Vaart, state DENR secretary.

Coal-fired plants in the Greensboro region include the retired Dan River Steam Station, the plant near Eden that launched the state's coal ash crisis with a February 2014 spill from a storage pond directly into the river.

Duke Energy also continues to operate a coal fired plant at Belews Creek, northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County.

"We are working quickly to close coal ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater," Sheehan said in her email. "We hope DENR will move soon to provide the necessary approvals so we can begin moving ash at Sutton and other sites."

Read more reporting on the Dan River coal ash spill - http://www.news-record.com/news/dan_river

 

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