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Coal ash is the waste that remains when coal is burned. It is usually collected in a dump, known as a pond. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites in 14 different locations across the state. A pipe running under one of the ponds run by Duke Energy in Eden NC ruptured in February of 2014. The coal ash spilled, largely affecting the Dan River which flows into Virginia. The spill is the third largest of its kind in U.S. history.Many see potential complications because North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

DEQ Fines Duke For Dan River Spill

Tom Augspurger (l), USFWS, taking core sample during February 8th reconnaissance of Dan River coal ash spill.
Steve Alexander

The state Department of Environmental Quality has issued a $6.6 million fine against Duke Energy for violations associated with the Dan River Coal Ash spill two years ago.

The fine is separate from a $7 million settlement reached between DEQ and Duke Energy last year. That agreement focused on groundwater contamination at four other coal ash sites, and was reduced from an original $25 million dollar fine.

The Dan River fine covers civil penalties to which Duke Energy has already pled guilty last May in a criminal case brought by the federal government. That settlement placed the company on probation for five years and levied a fine of $102 million.

“The state is holding Duke Energy accountable so that it and others understand there are consequences to breaking the law,” Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality Donald R. van der Vaart said in a statement.

The spill, in February 2014, released 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into the Dan River. Deposits of coal ash were detected as far away as 70 miles downstream, in the Kerr Lake Reservoir.

Last month, Tom Reeder, Assistant Secretary at DEQ, told lawmakers that his department was considering acting unilaterally on the fine. DEQ had been working with the Environmental Protection Agency since 2014, but Reeder said that relationship was: "like driving a Ford Taurus up Mount Everest. We're getting nowhere."

DEQ did, in fact, levy this penalty without the EPA.

Reeder also said last month that he expects Duke Energy will contest the fine.

"We do expect them to take us to court and that’s going to drive some massive litigation costs on our end," said Reeder. "Because it’s very expensive to fight Duke in court, I can tell you that much."

In a press release, Duke Energy says it is reviewing the civil penalty.

“The state's own research demonstrates that the Dan River is thriving. Drinking water always remained safe and water quality returned to normal within days of the February 2014 incident. The company took responsibility and quickly stopped the discharge and permanently plugged the 48 and 36 inch stormwater pipes at the site.”

Duke Energy is currently excavating coal ash from the Dan River site and moving it to a lined landfill in central Virginia. 

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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