North Carolina hits Duke with $6.6m fine over Dan River coal ash spill

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said Feb. 9 that it has issued a $6.6 million fine to Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) for environmental violations related to the February 2014 coal ash spill at the company’s retired Dan River power plant in Eden, N.C.

The fine covers civil penalties the company committed before, during and after the spill and only accounts for violations that the utility pled guilty to in criminal court in May 2015. The agency said it reserves the right to issue additional fines for other violations associated with the spill.

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality Donald R. van der Vaart said. “We are moving forward with enforcement actions against Duke Energy for not complying with environmental laws that protect North Carolina’s environment from catastrophes like the Dan River spill.”

The department entered an agreement with the federal government in March 2014 to jointly enforce these violations against Duke Energy. The department decided not to proceed with the March 2014 agreement to avoid further delays in the process. The state has the authority and information it needs to move forward on its own, the DEQ said.

Notable is that last September, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources changed its name to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Duke Energy said in a Feb. 9 statement about this fine: “We will review the action taken by NCDEQ today as we continue to work as quickly as the state process will allow to safely close coal ash basins. The state’s own research demonstrates that the Dan River is thriving. Drinking water always remained safe and water quality returned to normal within days of the February 2014 incident. The company took responsibility and quickly stopped the discharge and permanently plugged the 48 and 36 inch stormwater pipes at the site. At the Dan River facility and across the state, we’re making strong progress in closing basins in ways that protect people and the environment, comply with state and federal coal ash laws, minimize impact to communities, and manage cost.”

Duke noted that multiple federal and state agencies have been closely studying the Dan River. No physical impacts to fish or aquatic life have been observed to date. The U.S. EPA stated it does not believe human health was affected by the ash release. Within weeks of the incident, researchers from North Carolina State University determined the river was safe for irrigation and livestock use.

Duke Energy said that in the last few months it has made this progress on closing coal ash basins:

  • Continued to excavate ash from the Asheville Plant (Asheville, N.C.) and began excavating at Cliffside Steam Station (Mooresboro, N.C.), Dan River Steam Station (Eden, N.C.), Riverbend Steam Station (Mount Holly, N.C.), Sutton Plant (Wilmington, N.C) and W.S. Lee Steam Station (Belton, S.C.) to fully lined, permanent solutions;
  • Submitted comprehensive groundwater assessments to NCDEQ for each of the 14 coal plants in the state;
  • Announced plans to build fully lined on-site landfills at the Dan River Steam Station (Eden, N.C.), Robinson Plant (Hartsville, S.C.), Sutton Plant (Wilmington, N.C.) and W.S. Lee Steam Station (Belton, S.C.);
  • Announced that the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is conducting a comprehensive study of the coal ash recycling market and available technologies; and
  • Announced plans to retire the coal-fired Asheville Plant (Asheville, N.C.) in four to five years and modernize Duke Energy’s generation and transmission system in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina – significantly reducing environmental impacts, improving system reliability and minimizing long-term costs to customers.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.