Coal ash contamination to groundwater at Duke Energy’s Sutton Plant in Wilmington has landed the utility a record-breaking fine of $25.1 million.
The fine, announced March 10, is the largest penalty for environmental violations ever levied by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Years-long contamination from pollutants like thallium — which, along with selenium, arsenic and boron, are considered a greater risk to public health by the state agency — contributed to the high fine, calculated based on the number of days each coal ash-derived contaminant exceeded state groundwater quality standards. The fine also includes the state’s investigative costs, totaling $8,883.61.
A byproduct of coal burned for fuel, coal ash contains heavy metals and toxins like mercury, arsenic and selenium. At plants across North Carolina, including Sutton, the ash is mixed with water and stored in earthen beds, either unlined or lined with clay.
Coal-fired operations at the Sutton Plant began in 1954 and retired in 2013, when the facility switched to natural gas. The Coal Ash Management Act, passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2014, required Duke begin working on closure plans for coal ash basins at four sites deemed high priority, including Sutton. Coal ash at Sutton must be moved, and coal ash ponds closed, by Aug. 1, 2019.
Closure plans for Sutton are currently under review by DENR. In a statement released March 10, Duke officials said the utility is “working quickly to close the ash basins, including those at Sutton, which will help address impacts to groundwater.”
Duke also denied the groundwater contamination poses any threats to “neighbors that have not already been addressed.”
Working with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in 2013 Duke agreed pay most of the cost to extend water access to the small Flemington community, located off Hwy. 421, less than one mile south of the Sutton site. Drinking wells supply the few hundred Flemington residents with water.
Before the March 10 fine, the largest penalty issued by the state for environmental damages totaled $5.6 million. Duke could face additional fines based on groundwater contamination at 13 other North Carolina facilities.
An appeal to the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings is possible. Duke has 30 days to respond to the fine. Proceeds from the fine, if paid, will be funneled into public education.