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Duke Energy slammed with record $25.1 million coal ash fine

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Coal ash spills into the Dan River. (File photo)

Coal ash spills into the Dan River. (File photo)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Tuesday issued Duke Energy Progress the state’s largest-ever penalty for environmental damages, fining the utility $25.1 million for groundwater contamination from coal ash at the Sutton Plant near Wilmington.

DENR fined the utility $25,116,883.61 Tuesday based on the extent of impacts to groundwater, the characteristics of the constituents causing the impacts and the duration of the violations.

The calculation for the fine incorporated the state’s investigative costs and a formula taken from state groundwater laws that allows fines to be assessed by multiplying the number of days an individual contaminant leached into groundwater by a civil penalty for each violation. State groundwater violations at other Duke Energy facilities could result in additional fines against the utility, DENR said in a press release.

Under the North Carolina constitution, proceeds from Tuesday’s fine will go to a statewide fund for public schools.

“Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash,” said DENR Secretary Donald R. van der Vaart. “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.”

At Sutton, the state agency determined that Duke Energy allowed a host of coal ash contaminants to leach into the groundwater at the facility for several years, in at least a few cases. To determine the civil penalty, state officials used data from water samples of monitoring wells at the facility’s compliance boundaries and multiplied the number of days each individual contaminant leached into groundwater.

In the case of the thallium, for instance, state officials determined that Duke allowed the pollutant to leach into groundwater at the Sutton facility for 1,668 days. State officials multiplied 1,668 by a civil penalty allowed by law of $5,000 per day. The result was a fine of $8,340,000 for thallium alone. Pollutants that are considered a greater public health risk, including thallium, selenium, arsenic and boron, carried heavier penalties than other pollutants, state officials said. The state’s investigative costs totaled $8,883.61.

Tuesday’s fine was issued by a “Findings and Decisions and Assessment of Civil Penalties” to Duke Energy Progress from Jay Zimmerman, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources.

Under state law, Duke Energy has 30 days to respond to the fine and may choose to appeal it to the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.

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