Under the Dome

Duke Energy wants environmental attorneys to stop releasing depositions in coal ash case

Duke Energy wants to stop environmental attorneys from disclosing the deposition of a key state health agency official in a lawsuit that involves the safety of drinking water wells near coal ash basins. The utility says the lawyers have publicized and mischaracterized testimony in previous depositions and continuing to do so would jeopardize its right to a fair trial.

On Tuesday, the company asked a federal court for a protective order after the Southern Environmental Law Center refused to agree to at least postpone the release of the most recent deposition, according to emails filed with the motion. The July 11 deposition of Ken Rudo, who is in the public health section of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has not been completed, according to the motion.

Rudo expressed concern about the safety of the wells last year in a public meeting. Duke contends Rudo’s testimony so far, which mostly consists of his answers to the environmental attorneys’ questions, shows he doesn’t have direct knowledge and so would be inadmissible hearsay in court.

At issue is why the state health agency revoked its do-not-drink advisory for well owners near coal plants earlier this year. Some neighbors and environmental groups charge that it was done to appease Duke Energy, the largest utility in the country.

“Plaintiffs have sought to manipulate the media and the public, igniting fear and consternation in order to garner support for the extreme remedy,” Duke Energy’s motion says.

The company contends environmental organizations involved in the lawsuit are trying to build public support for requiring Duke Energy to excavate and remove to lined storage all the coal ash stored in ponds. That would require moving millions of tons of coal ash, cost residents billions of dollars, and disrupt communities without any significant environmental benefit, according to the court filing.

Duke Energy says not all the coal ash basins need to be excavated. It has been providing bottled water to neighbors, although noting that potentially harmful substances associated with coal ash are naturally occurring and might not be due to leaking basins.

Frank Holleman, one of the Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys, said the public wants clarity and reassurance.

“These citizens deserve complete information about how the issue of their water has been handled, as do all citizens of North Carolina,” Holleman said in a statement. “Duke Energy should not be trying to keep this important information from the public and the press.”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the utility’s attorneys have yet to extensively question Rudo under oath, and have just begun to challenge his motives, claims and credibility.

“This is yet another example of SELC’s reckless campaign to create fear and confusion around coal ash by cherry picking court documents in order to manipulate the media and the public,” Sheehan said.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO