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Originally published: 2014-03-24 10:19:05
Last modified: 2014-03-24 10:19:05

EPA to join NC in enforcing coal ash cleanup

by Anna Oakes

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced Friday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state will pursue a joint approach to an enforceable resolution of violations associated with the Dan River coal ash spill and to resolve Clean Water Act violations at other Duke Energy facilities.

"The state's goal is to clean up both the Dan River and to protect public health and the environment at the other Duke Energy facilities around the state, and we are pleased to announce that the EPA will join us as we address these important issues," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement. "Participation by the EPA will bring additional resources to help us resolve a difficult problem that spans more than six decades."

State officials have ramped up the intensity of their statements related to the coal ash spill and problems cited at other Duke Energy facilities in recent weeks. Following the Feb. 2 discovery of a broken stormwater pipe that leaked more than 30,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of coal ash basin water into the Dan River in Eden, environmentalists criticized DENR for a slow response to the spill and for failures to enforce environmental regulations.

Following notices that the Southern Environmental Law Center intended to file federal lawsuits over Duke Energy's alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at its coal ash impoundments across the state, DENR filed lawsuits in August 2013 against Duke for groundwater contamination at all 14 of the company's coal-fired power plants in the state.

DENR had reached a settlement agreement with Duke for violations at two of the facilities that would have included a $90,000 fine, but on Friday the agency announced it had asked to withdraw from the settlement because its terms were based on legal interpretations that a Wake County judge found to be in error earlier this month.

"We intend for our lawsuits against Duke Energy to move forward," said John Skvarla, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in a statement. "We will continue to hold the utility accountable for the clean up of its coal ash impoundments through the lawsuits, the reopening of the permits and our ongoing investigation."

Since the Dan River spill, DENR has identified additional violations at Duke facilities, including the pumping of an estimated 61 million gallons of coal ash wastewater from the Cape Fear Plant in Chatham County into a tributary of the Cape Fear River. The agency also approved an emergency plan by Duke to address a crack in an earthen coal ash dam at the plant. DENR officials said the dam did not appear to be in imminent danger of failure.