Attorneys for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources have alerted a Wake County Superior Court judge to the agency’s plans to seek approval of a proposal with Duke Energy to settle two coal ash lawsuits.
In a letter to Judge Paul Ridgeway dated Feb. 20, the attorneys for the state outlined their intentions to bring forward a settlement proposal they had withdrawn from court consideration some 10 days earlier. Environmentalists had roundly criticized the proposed $99,000 settlement, and the court hearing to review it came amid great scrutiny of the relationship between DENR and the nation’s largest utility after a coal ash spill on the Dan River.
A federal criminal probe is underway, and the U.S. Justice Department has issued subpoenas to the environmental oversight agency and Duke Energy in anticipation of the convening of a federal grand jury on March 18, 19 and 20.
The new proposal, which DENR plans to offer the day after the grand jury session ends, might go beyond the initial settlement focus – violations at coal ash lagoons in Asheville and on Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte, according to DENR’s counsel.
A hearing in Superior Court is set for April 4.
“Recommendations might include, but are not limited to, maintaining the consent order as proposed, recommending the inclusion of additional provisions, or expanding the overall scope of the consent order to include additional facilities,” states the letter signed by Kathryn Jones Cooper, special deputy attorney general for North Carolina.
Environmental advocates greeted the news with skepticism.
D.J. Gerken, managing attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a phone interview Tuesday that environmentalists worry a new settlement could include 12 more coal-ash plants that are not part of the two lawsuits. They also are concerned that a settlement would call for more study and further delay for what they contend is an obvious solution.
The law firm represents the conservation groups calling for a cleanup of Duke Energy’s Asheville coal ash pollution. The groups have long lobbied for a cleanup of all coal ash sites in North Carolina and removal of the hazardous material to dry storage areas.
“We certainly have no objection to rethinking, redrawing this settlement,” Gerken said.
“Enforcing the law against all 14 plants would be wonderful. The concern here is that everything falls short of the fundamental job DENR is supposed to be doing. If they take that same approach and expand it, that would not be good.”