News

Groups ask the court to overturn latest coal ash “sweetheart” deal

Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill in North CarolinaIn just a little over a year, from lawsuit to settlement in 2012, citizen and conservation groups in South Carolina pushed South Carolina Electric & Gas to begin cleaning up coal ash contamination at its sites there.

State environmental regulators stayed out and the utility stepped up, coming up with a plan to remove the ash from lagoons and either re-use it if possible or move it to lined storage elsewhere.

Other utilities there — including Duke Energy — likewise agreed later to do the same and have thus far removed more than a million tons of ash.

Compare that to what’s happened here since 2012. In October of that year, environmental groups asked the  state’s Environmental Management Commission for a ruling on how groundwater contaminations rules applied to coal ash sites here, and prepared for lawsuits against the company for contamination at its Asheville and Riverbend plants.

But unlike what happened in South Carolina, the state here stepped in at the last minute and the utility pushed back. Now, three years and a catastrophic coal ash spill later, those groups are still battling the state and Duke Energy over coal ash management. Instead of clean up, what they’ve gotten is delay, denial and diminution of the company’s obligations.

The September settlement between Duke Energy and the newly-rebranded Department of Environmental Quality, allowing Duke to pay a $7 million fine for groundwater pollution at all 14 of its coal ash sites here, is just the latest chapter in that saga.

That fine is a far cry from the $25 million DEQ had previously imposed on Duke for violations just at the Sutton Steam Plant near Wilmington. Duke subsequently appealed that fine, but then reached a global settlement with the state settling all claims and cases involving all its coal ash plants here.

The agreement also requires no cleanup commitments from Duke beyond what the company has already agreed to do, which involves removal of the ash at only a few plants.

Yesterday the groups filed a lawsuit asking the court to set aside that settlement.

“This latest sweetheart settlement shows what happens when Duke Energy and state bureaucrats get in a room together without public scrutiny,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the groups.

“Citizen action has produced cleanup commitments at seven dangerous, polluting coal ash sites in North Carolina so far, in spite of the state and Duke trying for years to block citizens from protecting our rivers, lakes, and drinking water. That’s why we are asking the court to ensure those efforts can continue.”

Read the new complaint here.

News

State asks court to stay coal ash lawsuits as to most Duke Energy plants in North Carolina

DENRpicIn papers filed yesterday, the state through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked the court hearing the enforcement actions against Duke Energy to stay the proceedings with respect to ten of Duke’s 14 coal ash plants, saying that a delay would allow the department and Duke Energy to classify and prioritize the ten sites as required under the new Coal Ash Management Act.

The four plants not included in the request are the Asheville Steam Electric Generation Plant, Riverbend Steam Station, Dan River Combined Cycle Steam Station and L.V. Sutton Steam Electric Plant — which the General Assembly already classified as high-risk and are subject to motions for judgement pending in court.

DENR contends that a stay would allow members of the public to participate in the assessment of the ten plants, touting provisions of the Act.

But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents advocacy groups that had early on pushed the state to take action and have been permitted to intervene in the enforcement actions, called the motion just another delay tactic, illustrating how DENR continues to work side-by-side with Duke Energy as opposed to aggressively enforcing state regulations.

According to Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Center, DENR has done nothing to pursue the enforcement cases and never asked the Court to order a cleanup of any site.

“We learned this month that DENR has even agreed with Duke Energy that it will not seek any information from Duke Energy through the enforcement proceedings,” Holleman said in a statement.

“Now, DENR is trying to stop the citizens groups from obtaining from DENR and Duke Energy information to enforce the law. This attempt to stop the enforcement of the law follows DENR’s incomprehensible attempt to stop the Court from ordering the cleanup of three dangerous and polluting coal ash sites, even though Duke Energy agrees they should be cleaned up. DENR has become a bureaucracy that puts its bureaucratic turf issues ahead of its mission to protect North Carolina’s communities and clean water.”

 

News

EPA: Duke’s $102 million penalty should serve as a warning to others that “cut corners” (video)

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

Latest Duke coal ash news is a powerful Earth Day reminder

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

Watchdog report highlights huge Duke Energy contributions to GOP guvs

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