Duke fines for coal ash pile up, but the ash piles don’t shrink

Guest Blog | April 23, 2015 | Coal, Energy Policy

Duke Energy is under a lot of pressure these days. Coal ash has become a serious financial and public relations liability for the corporation, yet so far, the nation’s largest utility isn’t planning to adequately clean up its mess across the Southeast. The impacts of coal ash on communities and waterways continue, and the price of business as usual is increasing – but it doesn’t seem to be enough so far to drive necessary action.

This week, North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced that it detected toxics in private wells near 7 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants. DENR required testing of private wells in proximity to the plants under a state law passed in response to the disastrous Dan River spill in 2014. These testing results have already become a national story and reinforce the case for Duke to remove its coal ash to dry, lined storage away from waterways, but Duke still isn’t getting the message.

Duke recently announced that it is challenging a $25.1 Million fine issued by the DENR for groundwater pollution its Sutton Plant near Wilmington, NC. Alarmingly, impoundments at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants are leaking toxic substances into groundwater. DENR’s action at Sutton might be a sign of future fines for Duke’s numerous impoundments throughout the state, but DENR’s track record shows more protection for Duke than actual penalizing action.

DENR’s fine comes just weeks after Duke negotiated $102 Million in fines and restitution with federal prosecutors for 9 misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act at four of NC’s rivers. If you’re keeping count, that’s:

  • $102M for Clean Water Act violations in NC
  • $25.1M for Sutton in NC
  • $2.25M fine to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality for the Dan River spill

The VA fine brings Duke’s total expenses related to coal ash just since the Dan River spill to almost $150M, and the broader costs of coal ash are piling up outside of NC and VA. At Duke’s HB Robinson plant near Hartsville, South Carolina, an investigation by Duke recently uncovered that its coal ash impoundment is filled with nearly six times more coal ash than Duke originally estimated. This likely means added costs as Duke prepares a clean up plan. These probable financial costs will be another legacy of improper storage and handling of toxic coal ash. But for a corporation as profitable as Duke, expenses, even state actions costing the corporation millions, seem to not be enough for Duke to get serious about properly cleaning up its coal ash. The company is capable of simply writing checks to pay these fines with little repercussion to their bottom line or credit ratings.

Duke’s corporate image has suffered, and public trust has justifiably eroded since the Dan River spill. State actions and Duke’s cozy relationship with regulators garnered hundreds of stories ranging from local and state outlets to The New York Times. Duke responded to the Dan River PR nightmare in part by docking CEO Lynn Good’s pay by over $600,000 in 2014 – an apparent attempt to rebuild its image and regain public trust. Actually holding Duke’s upper management accountable for environmental disasters under their watch would be a step in the right direction, but even with the pay doc, Lynn Good made at least $8.3M in 2014, making the penalty a tiny slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, Duke appears to be doing the minimum under the law to protect our communities and rivers from its toxic coal ash and appears to have added these financial and reputational losses to its cost of doing business.

Instead of waiting for public outrage and state actions to force it to properly manage its coal ash, Duke should be proactively taking steps to safeguard the communities in which it operates from coal ash. Duke would rebuild its image and regain public trust much more effectively by aggressively removing coal ash from its wet impoundments and moving it to dry, lined storage away from our rivers and waterways. While the costs pile up, SACE and our allies throughout the Southeast are calling on Duke to get serious about spending their money on the front end to clean up its mess instead of waiting for disaster and contamination to drive fines and lawsuits.

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