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Duke Energy required to pay fine for pollution

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A $7 million fine and up to $15 million to accelerate cleanup of its coal-ash ponds will settle a case against Duke Energy over water pollution at the decommissioned Sutton Steam Plant.

In March the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) fined Duke Energy $25.1 million just for pollution coming from the plant on U.S. 421 north of Wilmington. The settlement announced Tuesday would encompass all 14 coal-fired plants the company has operated in North Carolina.

In addition to the lowered fine, the settlement also requires another $10 million to $15 million in “accelerated remediation costs,” a DEQ news release said.

A state law requires Duke to clean up all 14 sites by 2029. The news release quoted DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart as saying the settlement allows the utility to spend its money to fix the problem faster rather than paying a larger fine.

State officials also say it allows North Carolina to avoid the cost of prolonged litigation.

Shortly after the settlement was announced, the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement condemning the agreement. The environmental organization has pushed for years to force cleanup of the ponds that store millions of tons of coal ash from Duke Energy’s power plants and filed the lawsuit that led to the original fine.

“This settlement is not about the Sutton groundwater fine,” the release quoted Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the SELC, as saying. “This agreement is part of a concerted effort to block citizens from enforcing water pollution laws to protect our waters.”

The SELC has previously accused the state of intentionally blocking lawsuits and other efforts by residents to force Duke Energy to clean up and monitor its coal-ash sites, and has been skeptical of Gov. Pat McCrory, who spent more than 25 years as an employee of Duke Energy before his election in 2012.

But a 2014 spill at the Dan River coal-fired Plant near Eden caused loud public outcry and prompted the legislation that will force cleanup of the ash ponds by 2029. The Sutton Plant, where leaking ash ponds have sent pollutants into the Cape Fear River and the groundwater, was on the high-priority list and is required to drain the ponds and remove 7.2 million tons of ash by 2019.

The company expects to move about 2 million tons of ash residue to a former clay mine in Chatham County. The rest will be reburied in a lined landfill on site, farther from the river.

Several years ago, in advance of expected higher air-quality standards for coal-fired plants, Duke Energy announced it would replace a number of those with power plants fueled by natural gas, which burns cleaner.

The Sutton Plant was shuttered in late 2013 after the new gas-fired plant opened.

email Tricia Vance at [email protected]

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