Duke Energy on Monday signed an agreement with the state of North Carolina and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to clean up the Dan River coal ash spill that occurred in February. Significantly, the agreement is financially open-ended in that it does not set a cost cap on the amount Duke must spend to complete the job.
Duke signed a similar agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May. That deal required Duke to reimburse the EPA for its costs in investigating the spill.
Neither agreement affects an ongoing federal criminal investigation into the accident and allegations that Duke officials and the N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) colluded to shield the company from liability for coal ash leaks across the state. A federal grand jury issued at least 23 subpoenas to Duke and the DENR after the accident.
The spill occurred on Feb. 2 when a storm drain under a coal ash pond at the Dan River Steam Station near Eden, N.C., ruptured, releasing around 38,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River. The fallout from the accident and a renewed focus on Duke’s coal ash ponds—it maintains at least thirty in North Carolina—may lead it to accelerate the retirements of its aging coal fleet. Duke said the cost of cleaning up the ponds could top $10 billion.
Duke has already spent at least $15 million on the Dan River cleanup, which is expected to take several years. It is also facing a shareholder derivative suit that accuses the company’s officers and directors of concealing the problems with its coal ash ponds and failing to take steps to limit further liability.
—Thomas W. Overton is a POWER associate editor (@thomas_overton, @POWERmagazine)