RALEIGH — North Carolina environmental regulators said Friday they expect to levy fines against Duke Energy to penalize the company for its coal ash spill into the Dan River earlier this month.
But the move by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources comes amid criticism that agency officials knew there were problems at the site and didn’t do anything to stop them, which led to the Feb. 2 spill.
DENR gave Charlotte-based Duke Energy 15 days to make its best case against paying maximum fines for the accident that resulted in the release of up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the river near the Virginia border.
The fines could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. State law allows a maximum fine of $25,000 a day per each violation, but extreme penalties are typically reserved for chronic offenders.
The agency cited Duke with five violations of environmental safety standards.
“The communication sent from DENR is a recommendation for penalties,” said agency spokeswoman Bridget Munger. “This is not something that’s going to sit on the shelf for a long time.”
Environmental organizations said Friday that the spill is partially DENR’s fault for failing to act on the knowledge about potential problems at Duke’s 14 coal ash facilities around the state, including the Dan River Steam Station in Eden where the spill occurred.
The spill resulted in sludge and silt coating more than 70 miles of the Dan River, from Eden to Kerr Lake. The coal ash slurry spilled out of a 48-inch drainage pipe that had been buried under a coal ash lagoon in the 1950s and apparently deteriorated and collapsed.
The pipe was described in a 2009 report documenting an inspection by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA cited an earlier report that documented the pipe and was submitted to the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Among the violations DENR cited in its letter to Duke, the agency alleged the electric utility was discharging water through the pipe without a state permit and failing to take all reasonable steps to prevent illegal discharges.
“DENR knew that Duke did not have permits, and they required nothing to happen,” said D.J. Gerken, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents several environmental advocacy groups that are intervening in a DENR lawsuit against Duke Energy.
Duke, which has apologized for the spill, declined to comment except to say it will respond to DENR’s letter. But the company could cite the environmentalists and argue that regulators are partially at fault for not enforcing the law.
“DENR has known since 2009 that Duke has been dumping stormwater contaminated by industrial pollutants into the Dan River without a permit,” Gerken said. “Had they been monitoring pollution from that pipe like the law requires, they could have identified leaking coal ash much sooner – maybe soon enough to avert this tragedy.”