Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility company, pleaded guilty on Thursday to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act including improper maintenance and failure to heed its own employees’ warnings which would have prevented a massive dump of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014. Duke agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution — the largest federal criminal fine in North Carolina history.
Of the total amount, $68 million is a criminal penalty, and $34 million will be earmarked for environmental programs in North Carolina and Virginia, including a wetlands mitigation effort. This is believed to be one of the steepest penalties ever imposed for violations of the Clean Water Act in its entire 43-year history. As part of a five-year supervised probation, the company must maintain strict adherence to the law or be subject to further action from the court.
Four of the charges stem directly from the spill at its Dan River Steam Station near Eden, which sent 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash and millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater into the river, and then spread 62 miles to the Virginia border. Remaining charges were the result of an expanded, thorough investigation based on a documented history of violations at Duke’s other North Carolina facilities.
The “Joint Factual Statement” issued by the court documents numerous leaks and seepage from poorly maintained coal ash ponds, which in some cases led to excessive levels of mercury, chromium, arsenic, thallium, and other toxic materials in groundwater. Several examples even show unauthorized leaks that were well known, yet still continued for years.
Sadly, the disastrous Dan River spill could have been averted entirely had management granted repeated requests by personnel to perform robotic camera inspections of four pipes, which, prosecutors charge, would have revealed the pipe was composed of 60-year-old corrugated metal instead of the concrete Duke presumed. For the company that earned $1.4 billion in 2014, the meager $20,000 price for that inspection could have prevented untold environmental consequences.
“The massive release at the Dan River coal ash basin revealed criminal misconduct throughout the state — conduct that will no longer be tolerated under the judgment imposed by the court today,” explained US Attorney Thomas G Walker in a statement. Additionally, he said the company’s crimes “reflect a breach of the public trust and a lack of stewardship for the natural resources belonging to all of the citizens of North Carolina.”
Though the violations caused significant harm to the environment, by pleading guilty to misdemeanors for negligence, Duke avoided felony convictions that would have impacted the company’s ability to seek government contracts.
Many activists feel the penalty inadequately reflects the true scope of damage Duke’s coal plants have exacted on the environment. John Suttles, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney, said it best:
This confirms that Duke has committed serious and long-standing environmental crimes. What this admission of guilt does not do is clean up the coal ash that continues to leak into our water supplies, into our rivers.