The state-record $25 million fine North Carolina’s environmental agency filed Tuesday penalized Duke Energy for years of groundwater contamination.
Ash elements found in test wells around the Sutton power plant in Wilmington had broken state standards for as many as five years, state documents say.
Duke acknowledged contamination problems at Sutton in late 2013, when it agreed to pay up to $1.8 million for a water line to a low-income community near the plant.
The fine is the state’s largest for environmental damage, quadrupling the $5.7 million levied as part of a 1986 air-quality case. It followed violations the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had cited at Sutton last August. The money will go to a state fund for public schools.
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DENR sued Duke over ash contamination at its power plants in 2013, at the prodding of environmental advocates, and before a 2014 spill into the Dan River focused regulators’ attention. The lawsuits, which are still before the courts, sought injunctions to stop the contamination.
“Our priority was fixing the problem. You can always come back and fine somebody,” DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said.
Duke has 30 days to appeal Tuesday’s fine, and the company said it is reviewing the state action. Duke added that it has monitored groundwater at Sutton since 1990 and reported the results to state regulators.
Advocates in Wilmington said the fine does little to protect the Flemington neighborhood. Contaminated groundwater from Sutton is moving toward its community wells.
“Until the state actually forces Duke to clean up the mess that people are sitting in right next to that plant, $25 million doesn’t mean anything to them,” Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette said.
Under the coal ash law adopted last year, Duke is probing deeper into the tainted groundwater that has been found at all 14 of its North Carolina coal plants. It’s assessing the extent and flow of contamination, and whether nearby private wells have been affected.
“We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed,” Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said by email.
The law requires Duke to file corrective action plans and a schedule to restore tainted groundwater. But unlike the 2029 deadline it set to close ash ponds – Sutton’s are on a faster track – the law doesn’t set a deadline for groundwater cleanups.
Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams, a former DENR supervisor who’s been critical of the agency’s ash policing, said she’s proud of its “strong stance ... however long overdue (it) may be.”
“I hope we can expect DENR’s stance remains strong when it comes to removing the source of the pollution,” she said by email.
DENR, meanwhile, appears ready to punish Duke financially.
The Asheville power plant is “next on the list” in what’s expected to be a string of fines, Elliot said. DENR cited the plant in February for contaminating groundwater, after ordering Duke in 2013 to supply bottled water to a home near the plant. Duke voluntarily supplies water to a second house.
DENR is also pursuing civil violations of the federal Clean Water Act, for illegal leaks from ash ponds, with the Environmental Protection Agency. Duke agreed last month to a $102 million settlement of federal criminal charges over its ash practices.
Years of contamination
DENR based Sutton’s fines on the threat posed by the pollutants and how long they had been known to contaminate groundwater. The plant’s three coal-fired units were retired in 2013.
The heaviest fines were levied for four potentially toxic elements – boron, thallium, selenium and arsenic. Wells at or beyond a 500-foot radius around Sutton’s ash ponds broke state standards continuously for one to five years, the state said.
The $25.1 million total was less than 20 percent of the maximum fines DENR could have levied.
As Duke thinks about whether to appeal, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is taking bids on the water line to the Flemington community that Duke committed to build in 2013.
The water authority, in an extraordinary concession, agreed to avoid tapping groundwater again in an area near the plant that’s estimated to cover 17 square miles.
The water line will be completed in less than two years. But the authority says the wells that serve Flemington still meet safe-water standards.
“Just because the fine was announced does not mean that there is unsafe drinking water out there,” spokesman Mike McGill said.