Duke Energy Fined $6.6 Million for Dan River Coal Ash Spill

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) issued a $6.6 million fine to Duke Energy on February 8 for environmental violations related to the February 2014 coal ash spill from the Dan River power plant near Eden, N.C.

Although the fine is not insignificant, it pales in comparison to the $102 million the company was sentenced to pay last year under a plea agreement with federal authorities. In that judgment, the combination of fines, restitutions, and community action initiatives stemmed from nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, only four of which were directly related to the Dan River spill.

Duke Energy said that it would review the latest action taken by the NCDEQ, while it continues its work to close coal ash basins throughout the state.

“At the Dan River facility and across the state, we’re making strong progress in closing basins in ways that protect people and the environment, comply with state and federal coal ash laws, minimize impact to communities, and manage cost,” the company said in a statement.

But some groups feel progress is not being made fast enough.

“N.C. DEQ’s action on Dan River today is three years too late,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It has taken DEQ two years to assess this fine for thousands of obvious violations of law. And still today, at coal ash sites across North Carolina DEQ is not taking steps to require Duke Energy to adequately clean up its illegal coal ash pollution by moving its ash to safe, dry, lined storage.”

However, Duke Energy argued that it has made substantial progress on its coal ash handling. It pointed to the following actions the company has taken over the last few months as proof:

  • Continued to excavate ash from the Asheville Plant (Asheville, N.C.) and began excavating at Cliffside Steam Station (Mooresboro, N.C.), Dan River Steam Station (Eden, N.C.), Riverbend Steam Station (Mount Holly, N.C.), Sutton Plant (Wilmington, N.C), and W.S. Lee Steam Station (Belton, S.C.), moving the ash to fully lined, permanent solutions
  • Submitted comprehensive groundwater assessments to NCDEQ for each of the 14 coal plants in the state
  • Announced plans to build fully lined onsite landfills at the Dan River Steam Station, Robinson Plant (Hartsville, S.C.), Sutton Plant, and W.S. Lee Steam Station
  • Announced that the Electric Power Research Institute is conducting a comprehensive study of the coal ash recycling market and available technologies
  • Announced plans to retire the coal-fired Asheville Plant in four to five years and modernize Duke Energy’s generation and transmission system in western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina—significantly reducing environmental impacts, improving system reliability, and minimizing long-term costs to customers

The company also suggested that the Dan River has been thriving since the spill. It said drinking water always remained safe and water quality returned to normal within days of the incident. And while long-term effects are still being studied, physical impacts to human health, fish, and aquatic life appear to be negligible.

The NCDEQ fine covers civil penalties for violations that the company committed before, during, and after the spill, and it only accounts for violations that Duke Energy pled guilty to in criminal court last May. The agency said it reserves the right to issue additional fines in the future for other violations associated with the spill.

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” NCDEQ Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart said. “We are moving forward with enforcement actions against Duke Energy for not complying with environmental laws that protect North Carolina’s environment from catastrophes like the Dan River spill.”

For more information about the spill and subsequent actions taken by Duke Energy, see “Duke’s Dan River Station Suffers Coal Ash Spill [UPDATED],” “Dan River Ash Spill May Spur Tougher State Oversight, EPA Rules,” “Dan River Ash Spill Could Lead Duke to Retire 932 MW of Coal Generation,” “Duke Energy and EPA Reach Agreement on Dan River Coal Ash Cleanup,” and “Duke Commits to Funding Full Dan River Cleanup.”

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)