EPA was concerned about NC deal on Duke ash dumps
The U.S. Environmental Agency expressed concern last year that a proposed deal between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy to settle pollution violations at two of the company's coal ash dumps was too lenient.
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources released more than 13,000 pages of public records in recent days as a response to media requests following the Feb. 2 coal ash spill at a Duke plant in Eden, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic gray sludge.
Among the items released was a Sept. 27 email from Denisse D. Diaz, chief of the EPA's Clean Water Enforcement Branch, in which the federal agency questions a proposed settlement over groundwater contamination at dumps near Charlotte and Asheville that would have required the $50 billion company to pay $99,000 in fines with no requirement to clean up the pollution.
Though monitoring wells installed by the company had for years documented groundwater contamination leaching from 33 unlined ash pits, state officials had never take action against Duke until a coalition of environmental groups moved to sue the company last year for violating the Clean Water Act. The state agency then used its authority to intervene, quickly proposing a settlement with modest fines.
"The consent order's proposed penalty amounts for past violations ... seem low considering the number of years these facilities are alleged to have been out of compliance," the EPA said.
EPA also expressed reservations about details of how Duke would be required to test for contaminants in the wastewater flowing out of its dumps into rivers and lakes, suggesting more stringent monitoring requirements. The federal agency also questioned provisions allowing pollution leaking from the earthen dikes holding back the coal ash to be included under the company's wastewater discharge permits issued by the state.
State officials made modest technical changes to the settlement proposal in response to the EPA's concerns, but did not increase the amount of the fines.
In the wake of the massive Feb. 2 coal ash spill, state officials have been defending their earlier deal with Duke even as they have sought to distance themselves from it.
The state agency asked a judge to pull its own proposed settlement, the day after an Associated Press story in which environmentalists derided the agreement as a "sweetheart deal" intended to shield nation's largest electricity from a costly cleanup of its dumps.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory worked at Duke for more than 28 years and the company and its executives have remained generous contributors to his campaign and GOP groups that support him. McCrory, a Republican, denies Duke received any special treatment from his administration.
Last month, McCrory's administration indicated it now intends to move forward in state court with its civil case against the company over its past groundwater contamination. In court filings last week, Duke denied that it had violated any laws.
Also now pending are nine new violations against Duke over the Eden spill and issues at several of the company's other sites, including the illegal pumping of 61 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Cape Fear River.