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Duke Energy appeals $6.6 million state fine in Dan River coal ash spill

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014.
Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. AP

Duke Energy is asking a court to reconsider a $6.6 million fine issued last month by the state Department of Environmental Quality in connection with a February 2014 accident that spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

In a statement Wednesday, Duke said it takes responsibility for the ash spill. But the company said that the fine amount was arbitrary and that it isn’t being treated fairly.

“Clearly, our company is accountable for the Dan River incident, and we recognize the state’s right to issue an appropriate penalty in a situation like this,” Duke Energy said in a statement emailed by a company spokeswoman. “This appeal requests that Duke Energy be treated in a manner that is fair and consistent with the law and other North Carolina companies.”

The DEQ issued the fine Feb. 8. Duke’s appeal comes at the expiration of the company’s 30-day window to do so.

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” said DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart. “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.”

In May, the company reached a $102 million settlement with federal authorities over criminal charges related to Duke’s handling of coal ash.

The state fine is based on violations the DEQ cited less than a month after the Dan River spill, which happened when a metal drainage pipe under a 27-acre coal ash storage pond ruptured. The spill sent ash – left over from burning coal to generate electricity – up to 70 miles downriver from the pond. Duke is still monitoring the river, along with regulators from North Carolina and Virginia.

When the state fine was announced last month, the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents 12 advocacy groups fighting Duke in court, said the fine was too small for such a major company.

Duke appealed another state fine last year, and that fine was reduced. After the state issued a $25 million fine for groundwater contaminated by ash at its Sutton power plant in Wilmington, DEQ and Duke reached a $7 million settlement in September of groundwater issues at 14 power plants in the state, including that site.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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