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Duke Energy to fight $25 million fine

Flemington Road community neighbors Sam Malpass, left, and Kenneth Sandlin of Wilmington walk through former hunting grounds near their homes on Feb. 19, 2014. The two are part of a small community nearby the L.V. Sutton Complex operated by Duke Energy they feel has polluted well water from seepage from large coal ash ponds.
Flemington Road community neighbors Sam Malpass, left, and Kenneth Sandlin of Wilmington walk through former hunting grounds near their homes on Feb. 19, 2014. The two are part of a small community nearby the L.V. Sutton Complex operated by Duke Energy they feel has polluted well water from seepage from large coal ash ponds. AP FILE PHOTO

Duke Energy said Tuesday that it will “vigorously contest” a state-record $25.1 million fine for contamination of groundwater at its Sutton power plant in Wilmington.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources fined Duke on March 10. The department has said it expects to levy more fines as it investigates coal ash contamination at other plants.

“This is a difficult step, but we cannot allow this level of regulatory overreach to go unchallenged,” Duke’s North Carolina president, Paul Newton, said in a statement.

“The actions by N.C. DENR send a chilling message to the North Carolina business community.”

Duke said it will file a formal appeal with the state Office of Administrative Hearings by April 9. The appeal will attempt to show that DENR acted contrary to law, exceeded its authority or jurisdiction or didn’t follow proper rules and procedures.

In a statement, the department said it calculated Duke’s penalty in accordance with state law. “Duke Energy is exercising its legal right to appeal the fine within 30 days to the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings,” the statement said.

Contamination at the Sutton plant was known well before DENR issued the fine this month, and before a February 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River that focused regulatory attention on ash.

Ash elements found in test wells around the Sutton plant had broken state standards for as many as five years, records show. Duke had reported groundwater test results to the state since 1990.

The largest portions of the $25.1 million fine 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.

In late 2013, Duke agreed to spend up to $1.8 million to supply a neighborhood near the power plant with a new water line after monitoring wells showed contaminated groundwater moving toward the Flemington community.

“Our work has been proactive and focused on the well-being of the community,” Newton said. “We took accountability and addressed the issue at Sutton ourselves.”

Duke has opted not to fight federal criminal charges stemming from ash contamination at six power plants, negotiating a $102 million settlement with prosecutors last month. The settlement will go before a federal judge in Greenville on April 16.

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

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