In 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.