Duke Energy sued by environmentalist groups

Sep. 03, 2014 @ 10:30 PM

RALEIGH — A coalition of North Carolina environmental groups sued Duke Energy on Wednesday over pollution leaking from the company's coal ash dumps.

Three lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court cite water pollution and dam safety issues at Duke's coal-fired power plants at Buck Steam Station near Salisbury, the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure and the H.F. Lee Plant near Goldsboro. The complaints, filed under the federal Clean Water Act, accuse Duke of contaminating rivers and groundwater used as sources of drinking water by hundreds of thousands of people.

Coal ash contains numerous chemicals that are toxic to humans and wildlife, including arsenic, lead, chromium and thallium.

Duke's 33 unlined ash pits across the state have been under intense scrutiny since a February spill at a power plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. North Carolina lawmakers approved new legislation last month requiring Duke to dig up or cap all of its coal ash dumps by 2029.

"Duke Energy continues to be committed to closing its North Carolina ash basins in a way that's fact-based and environmentally sound," company spokeswoman Erin Culbert said Wednesday.

Environmental groups say the new law doesn't go far enough, potentially allowing Duke to "close" most of its unlined pits — including at the three plants named in the lawsuits filed Wednesday — by simply covering them over with plastic sheeting and a layer of dirt. They also point to what they describe as the state's long history of lax enforcement of clean water regulations that should have required Duke to clean up its mess years ago.

"We're taking action to ensure these communities and rivers are protected from Duke Energy's toxic coal ash pollution," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "(State regulators) and the General Assembly chose not to require cleanup of coal ash in these communities, so citizens groups are stepping up to enforce the law and protect clean water for the people of North Carolina."

The suits were filed on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch, the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The law center filed notice in 2013 of its intent to sue Duke in federal court over pollution from three other plants. Regulators at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources then used their authority to take enforcement action in state court, quickly proposing to allow Duke to settle violations at two of the plants for a $99,000 fine.

That deal was scuttled after the big spill earlier this year and the state court cases are still pending. Holleman contends the legal maneuvers made last year by the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory were intended to shield Duke from far harsher penalties the $50 billion company might have faced had the cases been allowed to move forward in federal court.

McCrory worked at Duke for 29 years before retiring and the company's executives have given generously to his campaigns. The governor contends his administration has never given any special treatment to his former employer.

The state environmental agency issued a lengthy letter last week defending its oversight of Duke and suggesting there was no need for action by private groups in federal court. But the agency also took no action to pre-empt the new lawsuits.