NC Coal Ash Spill Brings Violation Notices

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 @ 06:03 PM gHale

Duke Energy will end up cited for violating environmental standards in connection with a massive coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge in North Carolina last month.

Two formal notices issued by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cite Duke for separate violations of wastewater and stormwater regulations.

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The agency could levy fines against Duke for the violations, but regulators have not determined the amounts.

The spill began Feb. 2 when an old stormwater pipe running under a 27-acre coal ash dump at a Duke’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden collapsed. It took the company nearly a week to fully plug the leak.

State environmental Sec. John Skvarla, whose agency has been widely criticized in the wake of the spill, said, “These are violations of state and federal law, and we are holding the utility accountable.”

The violation notices came after The Associated Press filed a public records request for a copy of Duke’s stormwater permit for the Dan River plant, which the company needed to have to legally discharge rainwater draining from its property into the river.

That type of permit would require testing and inspections that could have given early warning something was wrong before the collapse.

The agency responded that no such permit existed.

In a written statement, spokeswoman Bridget Munger said the state had historically considered the stormwater pipes at the plant to be part of the facility’s wastewater permit covering discharges from the ash basins. State regulators had been talking with Duke since 2011 for the company to apply for the required stormwater permit, but that issue had not been resolved by the time of the spill, she said.

“Staff members in the department’s stormwater permitting unit have been working since that time with Duke Energy to develop a template for individual stormwater permits for all of their facilities that have coal ash ponds,” Munger said. “Some progress has been made but there are still many issues to be resolved, including monitoring, parameters for testing and other requirements.”

Asked directly whether Duke was in violation of state and federal laws for not having the required stormwater permits, the agency refused to answer. It is not clear why the agency had not issued Duke notice it was in violation during the years before the spill.

After issuing a news release about the violations at 5 p.m. on Friday, agency communications director Drew Elliot said his staff had been too busy in recent days to respond to the AP’s question. He said the final decision to issue the violations did not occur until Friday morning.

The second violation notice issued Friday was for failing to prevent the massive spill and exceeding state water-quality standards in the river, which tests showed had high levels of arsenic, lead and aluminum — metals contained in coal ash. Public health officials have advised people to avoid contact with the river water and to not eat fish.

The notices of violation invite Duke to respond within 15 and 30 days with any information on why the company should not receive the fines.

Asked for comment Friday, Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan responded: “We will reply to the state.”

Duke operates 14 sites across North Carolina that contain at least 32 coal ash dumps.

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