RALEIGH – The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources yesterday levied the largest environmental fine in state history against Duke Energy for groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds at the company’s L.V. Sutton power plant near Wilmington.
The agency fined the utility $25.1 million for several years of leaking coal ash that polluted groundwater around the Sutton plant. The penalty also includes the state’s investigative costs. The state also hinted yesterday that more fines for groundwater violations at other Duke power plants could be coming.
The penalty dwarfed the previous record $5.6 million fine that the state issued in 1986 against Texasgulf Chemicals, now PCS Phosphate, for air emission violations at its phosphate mine and fertilizer plant on the Pamlico River in Beaufort County.
Donald R. van der Vaart, DENR’s secretary, said yesterday that the record fine shows Gov. Pat McCrory’s commitment to cleaning a legacy of coal ash pollution that grabbed headlines last year after an ash pond at an old Duke plant in the Piedmont spilled into the Dan River. DENR last month cited Duke’s Asheville plant for contaminating groundwater. It also ordered Duke to supply bottled water to one home near the plant in 2013 and Duke voluntarily supplies a second residence.
“In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide,” van der Vaart said.
Duke, which has 30 days to respond, could appeal the fine to an administrative law judge. The company is reviewing the assessment, said Catherine Butler, a Duke spokeswoman.
Environmentalist applauded the fine as a good, but much delayed, first step. The fine does little to ease the fears of people who live near the Sutton plant and get their drinking water from local wells, noted Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper.
“Unless the state forces Duke to clean up the groundwater, the $25 million fine is really not doing much,” he said.
Forcing the company to clean up its pollution ultimately has to happen, echoed Cassie Gavin, director of Government Affairs for the state chapter of the Sierra Club. “While we appreciate that this is a significant enforcement penalty, there needs to be an end to the pollution into Lake Sutton and the groundwater,” she said. “Contamination is continuing even as the fine is being issued.”
There is no evidence that anyone’s drinking water is threatened, Butler said. “We have no indication of any off-site groundwater impacts that would pose a health concern for neighbors that have not already been addressed,” she said.
Tests in 2013 showed that nine pollutants found in coal ash had contaminated groundwater near the Sutton plant. Duke agreed later that year to pay to extend a public water line to affected communities.
The company has monitored groundwater at the Sutton ash basins since 1990 and routinely reports the results to the state, Butler explained. The company, she said, is currently following a process mandated by a state law passed last year to enhance groundwater assessments at all its power plants.
DENR determined that Duke allowed a host of coal ash contaminants to leach into the groundwater at the Sutton plant for several years in some cases. State officials calculated the penalty by determining the number of days specific pollutants exceeded a groundwater quality standard, then multiplied that number by a daily penalty amount.
In the case of the thallium, for instance, state officials determined that Duke exceeded the standard for 1,668 days. They then multiplied that number by $5,000, which is the daily civil penalty allowed for substances that are considered to have significant health risks. The fine for thallium alone was more than $8.3 million.
A trace element in coal, thallium enters the environment primarily from coal-burning and smelting. It stays in the air, water and soil for a long time and isn’t broken down. It is highly toxic to humans and animals and was once used to make rat poison.
The Sutton plant opened in 1954. Its three coal-fired burners were replaced by natural gas units in 2013.
Three environmental groups filed a notice the following year to sue Duke under the federal Clean Water Act for groundwater violations. The state preempted that lawsuit with one of its own.
“We filed that lawsuit because there were some pretty major violations, but we couldn’t even get DENR to call us back,” Kemp said. “Now they’re at least fining them $25 million, though they’re not doing anything to force Duke to clean up. But we’re at least now moving in the right direction.”
DENR officials met several times in 2013 with lawyers from the Southern Environmental Law Center, countered Drew Elliot, an agency spokesman. The law center represented environmental groups that had intended to sue Duke.