The U.S., North Carolina and Virginia governments on Thursday initiated a lawsuit against Duke Energy for damages incurred to natural resources as a result of the 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River.
The action seeks to hold the utility liable for damages "resulting from the release of hazardous constituents of coal ash" when approximately 39,000 tons of wet coal ash spilled into the river in North Carolina, according to the complaint.
- Duke says the filing is "procedural," as part of the utility's environmental restoration plan surrounding the Dan River spill. Duke was ordered by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in April to excavate all its coal ash ponds, but is currently resisting that order.
Since the 2014 Dan River spill, Duke has been battling poor public perception of its coal ash management. The utility pled guilty to nine violations involving that spill and additional breaches of its coal ash facilities, including during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, have only increased pressure on the utility and the government to take action.
Last week's suit, initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Carolina and Virginia DEQs is part of a "cooperative process" with those governments, Duke spokesperson Bill Norton told Utility Dive.
"We've been working with them for five years on this," he said. "Ultimately the restoration projects that we've undertaken actually provide more ecological and recreational benefits to the Dan River region than … potential impacts."
But environmentalists in the state note the suit is further evidence of what they've been saying all along — that storing coal ash near waterways is a problem.
"We're more than five years after the Dan River spill, and even today the full, at least legal reaction, to the spill is yet to be concluded. And so the timeframe illustrates above all else that we don't want any spills like this to occur in the future," Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Utility Dive.
"And so the most important thing for Duke to do to respond to the Dan River spill is to remove all its coal ash from all its leaking water front pits in North Carolina," he said.
Ponds at eight of the utility's 14 coal ash plants are slated for excavation, and although the DEQ's April order mandates the remaining 11 ponds at the other six plants be fully excavated as well, Duke has resisted that order, arguing that capping the ponds in place is as protective of the environment as fully removing the ash. The utility also says cleaning up all the basins will add $4-5 billion to the already $5.6 billion clean up.
Three of the six sites ordered for excavation are on the Dan River basin, according to Holleman.
"The very river basin that Duke dumped this coal ash into is the river basin where it is attempting to leave coal ash ... where a similar catastrophe could happen in the future," he said.