Duke dealt largest federal criminal fine in NC history for coal ash crimes

Guest Blog | May 15, 2015 | Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities

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.

The federal investigation had been ongoing since February 2014 when one of Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments dumped nearly 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina. Four of the federal misdemeanor charges were specifically for the Dan River coal ash disaster. Court documents revealed that Duke employees at the Dan River plant requested equipment to inspect the pipe that later ruptured causing the massive spill, but Duke Energy denied the request twice.

Duke Energy also pled guilty to illegally discharging coal ash and wastewater into rivers 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 LA Times reported:

“U.S. District Judge Malcolm J. Howard approved the plea agreement Thursday morning following a 90-minute court session in which a Duke Energy lawyer repeated the words ‘guilty, your honor’ more than 20 times.”

As part of its plea, Duke Energy agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in its ongoing investigation of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Although DENR was supposed to be protecting the public and NC’s waterways, the agency faces allegations that it failed to enforce federal law. Advocates and community members, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, will be watching this case closely.

Duke’s guilty plea does not settle a lawsuit SACE joined to compel Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash pollution from the Dan River site once and for all. SACE and our allies across the state (see the list below) are working to ensure that all of Duke’s 32 coal ash impoundments in NC are properly cleaned up. We are all represented in these cases by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

While Duke Energy is guilty of breaking criminal laws with its coal ash pollution, the $102 million payment will not solve the actual coal ash problems around the state. In order to prevent another coal ash disaster, Duke needs to clean up all 14 sites in North Carolina by moving its coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage away from our rivers. Our communities and waterways have suffered from these crimes, but they remain at risk so long as Duke’s toxic waste is stored recklessly on the banks of our rivers and seeping into our drinking water supplies.

(The Southern Environmental Law Center represents: the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Appalachian Voices, Cape Fear Riverwatch, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Dan River Basin Association, MountainTrue, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, Roanoke River Basin Association, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Winyah Rivers Foundation, and Yadkin Riverkeeper.)

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