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Federal prosecutors says Duke Energy’s guilty plea and agreement to pay a record $102 million fine for seepage from its coal ash ponds should ‘speak loudly’ to other corporations that fail to protect the environment.

EPA Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles told reporters while the agreement requires Duke to comply with the law, they are no longer willing to take Duke’s word for it that the clean-up is being done in a timely and satisfactory manner:

“An independent, third party monitor appointed by the court is going to audit their operation nationwide, not just in North Carolina, to make sure they are meeting their responsibilities,” explained Giles. “Those reports are going to be made public so Duke is held publicly accountable. We are sending a clear message to managers and businesses across the country take your responsibility to protect communities seriously.”

Duke will also be required to set aside $3.4 billion, a guarantee that it has the money necessary to address the seepage problems as it works to close 32 ash ponds across North Carolina.

Prosecutors noted Thursday that Duke Energy executives brought much of this trouble on themselves, failing to approve $20,000 for a robotic camera to inspect an aged stormwater pipe that failed in February 2014 dumping 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

To hear more from the EPA’s administrator for enforcement, click below. To read the plea agreement, click here.

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Commentary

Coal ash spillWe humans have a way of ignoring unpleasant facts as long as we can keep them out of sight — especially when paying attention would require us to change (and maybe even sacrifice some small measure of convenience or habit). That’s why the stories in newspapers across the state this morning (Earth Day morning) about Duke Energy’s coal ash pollution and its increasingly destructive impact on our health and well-being are so important. As the Charlotte Observer reports:

“Most of the private wells tested near Duke Energy’s North Carolina coal ash ponds show contaminants above state groundwater standards, state regulators said Tuesday.

Of 117 test results mailed to power plant neighbors in recent days, 87 exceeded groundwater standards, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said.”

In other words, there it is once again: concrete evidence that we are, increasingly, burying ourselves in our own effluent and jeopardizing human health and survival prospects in our blind and foolish refusal to quickly and radically alter our use of fossil fuels.

As Joe Romm pointed out on Think Progress  yesterday in a provocative Earth Day critique, this helps highlight one of the problems with the typical environmental protection messaging (including that of the Obama administration’s) on the subject: the message that moves people isn’t the threat to “mother Earth”; it’s the one about the threat to human survival: Read More

News

The good people at Democracy NC released the following this morning:

Duke Energy Gives $3 Million to Committee Tied to Gov. Pat McCrory as He Guides Coal Ash Response

A new analysis of government records reveals that Duke Energy – the world’s largest private electric utility – began writing unusually large checks to the national Republican Governors Association while Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers debated how to respond to the company’s giant spill of coal ash sludge into the Dan River.

In four payments from June to December 2014, Duke sent the Republican Governors Association a total of $3,050,000 – more than 10 times its previous record donation to the RGA. Duke’s contributions made it the top corporate donor to the RGA in 2014 and the second largest donor, behind the $3.5 million given by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands.

In 2012, the RGA spent $5 million to boost the election of Pat McCrory as governor, and it is expected to be a major financial backer of his 2016 bid for reelection. Records show McCrory has attended numerous RGA events and helped the association raise funds.

“Duke Energy’s large donations raise questions about the governor’s ability to serve the public interest more than his own political interest,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “Critics say the coal ash regulation law passed in 2014 was too soft on Duke. Is this money the reason why?” Read More

Commentary

The Fayetteville Observer has a fine editorial this morning taking the McCrory administration to task for the latest lame plan to deal with coal ash pollution and the ongoing discharges into our drinking water supplies. As the paper notes, the plan features a loophole the size of a coal fired power plant: it has no deadlines for compliance.

“Duke Energy was caught last year leaking excessive wastewater from its coal-ash ponds into soil and waterways. Duke is negotiating a federal settlement to pay resulting penalties. But the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found a way to ensure that the company doesn’t violate the law that way again: New permits will make future discharges legal….

…The logic behind DENR’s approach now is to give Duke time to fix these problems. Thinking the company could stop all leaks overnight would be unreasonable. If Duke works toward long-term solutions, DENR can offer permits letting the status quo remain legal temporarily without incurring additional penalties….

Unfortunately, there’s an element missing from DENR’s permitting plan that creates a massive loophole for continued pollution: There’s no timetable for Duke to make progress. That puts DENR’s policy back into the absurd category.

What good is a state agency that just writes permits allowing major polluters to continue doing more of the same indefinitely? Including a wish, even a vague expectation, that Duke will one day mend its ways doesn’t cut it. For Duke’s part, the company has expressed its intent to work toward rapid closure of the coal-ash ponds. If so, that’s great. But it won’t be due to any tough stance from DENR.

As the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued Duke over coal-ash storage, has noted, DENR’s permit plan includes no interim steps that Duke must take to stay on track. The agency needs to rethink its handling of these permits, and work toward a policy with more teeth for working with Duke and other polluters in the future.”

Of course, what the Observer fails to note is that is that such loopholes are no accident; they are what you get when a once proud environmental protection agency is gradually hollowed out and transformed pursuant to the demands and directives of the state’s biggest corporate polluters.

News

U.S. Attorney’s offices across the state filed a series of criminal cases today accusing Duke Energy of negligent discharge of coal ash and coal ash wastewater into rivers adjacent to company coal ash plants.

In Raleigh, the misdemeanor charges were filed in connection to spills at the H.F. Lee Steam Plant.

In Charlotte, similar charges were filed arising out of spills at the Riverbend and Asheville plants, according to the Charlotte Observer.

And in the state’s Middle District in Winston-Salem, charges were filed for negligent discharge at the Dan River Steam Station in  Eden and permitting and inspection violations at the Cape Fear Electric Steam Station in Moncure.

The charges follow Duke’s announcement earlier in the week of a possible $100 million settlement of the federal government’s investigation into spills at the plants.

In a statement released late yesterday, the company said that it had reached a proposed agreement with the federal government settling the charges that includes payments of $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation — to be borne by shareholders, not customers.

The settlement agreement, which as of the time of this post has not been confirmed by the U.S. Attorney’s offices involved, must be approved by the court. 

It also does not resolve claims in pending civil cases arising out of coal ash spills and does not appear, per the Duke Energy statement, to provide specifically for clean up at each of the company’s plants in North Carolina.

In response to the announcement, Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents several citizens groups in those pending actions, said in a statement:

Today, Duke Energy has admitted that it committed environmental crimes in its coal ash storage across North Carolina.  We informed Duke Energy and DENR of these violations of the Clean Water Act in 2013, yet Duke Energy’s polluting coal ash storage has yet to be cleaned up and has now resulted in criminal prosecutions.  The important points is this:  Duke Energy cannot buy its way out of its coal ash scandal, it has to clean its way out.  Duke Energy and its executives must show the people of North Carolina that they are sorry for these crimes by moving the dangerous and polluting coal ash to safe, dry, lined storage away from our rivers and drinking water supplies.

Read the Criminal Informations in the Raleigh cases below.

Duke Criminal 1 by NC Policy Watch

Duke Energy Criminal 2 by NC Policy Watch