Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to $102 million in fines and penalties related to a February 2014 coal-ash spill in North Carolina, according to a settlement announced by the U.S. Dept. of Justice on May 14. As part of the agreement, the Charlotte, N.C.-based utility will pay fines totaling more than $68 million, and will fund $34 million in environmental projects and land conservation efforts in North Carolina and Virginia. Covered by the settlement are Duke Energy Business Services, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress Inc.
The $102-million settlement, first proposed in February, finalized the criminal charges against Duke. While four of the nine criminal charges were directly related to the coal-ash spill from Duke’s Dan River plant, the DOJ stated that the government discovered the remaining violations as its investigation broadened to include other company facilities.
On Feb. 2, 2014, a 48-in.-dia stormwater pipe, located underneath the primary ash basin at the Dan River coal plant, near Eden, N.C., broke, pouring an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River over a period of days.
"Duke Energy'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," said U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker at the May 14 announcement in Greenville, N.C. “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."
The agreement also requires Duke Energy to reserve sufficient assets to meet legal obligations with respect to its existing impoundments in North Carolina, estimated to contain approximately 108 million tons of coal ash.
The settlement "officially closes this chapter in our company’s history,” Duke indicated in a May 14 statement. “We are implementing innovative and sustainable closure solutions for all of our ash basins, building on the important steps we've taken over the past year to strengthen our operations."
As part of its environmental restitution-related penalties, Duke will pay $24 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and $10 million to an authorized wetlands mitigation bank.