The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been criticized as being too lax in regulating coal ash generated by Duke Energy and its predecessor Progress Energy in power plants across the state. Some environmentalists blame Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, which took office in 2013.
But a chain of emails the agency released Monday documents DENR officials letting Progress Energy have its way at one coal ash site in 2011, at least partly over concerns that the utility would bring in lawyers to get its way.
At issue was whether to regulate Lake Sutton as a public resource. It is a popular fishing spot near Wilmington and is also the cooling pond for a coal-fired power plant. Since 1971, it had been considered a private pond with public fishing and boating access, which imposed less stringent controls on water that was being discharged into the Cape Fear River.
In response to an internal move to regulate the 1,100-acre lake more restrictively, one DENR official wrote in 2011: “This is going to be a very contentious issue. … Progress Energy is willing to get its lawyers involved to fight any potential classification of Lake Sutton.”
Noting that regulators thought the lake should be considered “waters of the state,” the DENR employee added: “PE (Progress Energy) did not like the answer because they will have to treat their stormwater for their new plant before discharging to Sutton Lake and they are opposed to having to provide any treatment whatsoever.”
Ultimately, DENR backed down on imposing the tougher restrictions. “Our brass has figured out how they want us to handle this issue,” according to another email.
The Sutton plant is one of four plants where, under a 2014 law, Duke Energy is required to move coal ash into lined pits as soon as possible. Last November, amid the agency’s efforts to emphasize its independence from Duke Energy, DENR went ahead and classified the lake as a public resource subject to greater protections.
Other records released Monday by DENR, as part of documentation supporting a written summary of coal ash management in the state, disclose for the first time that then-Secretary John Skvarla in April 2014 asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the Dan River spill, which occurred Feb. 2.
That’s when DENR discovered that inspection records showed Duke Energy had been repeatedly warned about the weakness of a corrugated metal drainage pipe beneath a coal ash pond at the plant in Eden. That pipe collapsed and caused the massive spill of coal ash and wastewater.
Skvarla wrote that there were “serious concerns as to what Duke knew about the vulnerabilities of the stormwater pipe.”
In April, SBI Assistant Director Eric Hooks said the SBI’s environmental crime and special investigations units were already working with federal authorities and that agents were in the process of interviewing people. Failure to address the collapsed pipe became part of the federal criminal offenses filed against Duke Energy on Friday.