DENR abandons settlement with Duke over coal ash lawsuits

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

The state’s environmental regulatory agency on Friday abandoned attempts to reach a settlement in its lawsuits against Duke Energy and also announced it was calling in its federal counterpart to help force the utility to clean up coal ash pollution.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources notified a Wake County Superior Court judge Friday that it wanted to withdraw the proposed settlement, which it had put on hold last month. That settlement of two lawsuits the agency filed over pollution at the company’s coal-ash storage sites – in Asheville and Gaston County – drew criticism because it imposed a fine of only $99,000 and didn’t require the coal ash to be moved and secured.

Environmental groups’ claims that regulators and the regulated were too cozy took on a new life after the massive spill of coal ash into the Dan River on Feb. 2, and a federal grand jury investigation of Duke Energy and DENR that began soon after. On Feb. 20, DENR asked Judge Paul Ridgeway to give it time to come up with another settlement proposal with Duke, which might be expanded to cover all of the utility’s coal-ash sites.

On March 6, Ridgeway – ruling on an appeal by the Southern Environmental Law Center of a state Environmental Management Commission decision – said the state has been erroneously applying a groundwater pollution rule. The ruling said that Duke could be required to immediately stop the source of its coal-ash pollution.

DENR decided Ridgeway’s ruling changed the legal underpinnings of its settlement and so a resolution wasn’t immediately workable. The agency says it will continue to pursue those lawsuits in addition to the lawsuits it filed in August for environmental violations at its other 12 plants.

Also on Friday, DENR announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to join state regulators in tackling Duke’s coal-ash problem. DENR said the EPA brings unique resources available to it under federal law that will help with enforcement and cleaning up pollution.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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