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Wilmington, North Carolina. (Image: US Coast Guard)

Wilmington, North Carolina. (Image: US Coast Guard)

Last month, North Carolina regulators fined Duke Energy $25.1 million for contaminating the local watershed around its Sutton coal plant. The figure was calculated by multiplying daily fine amounts by the more than 1,600 days the plant polluted the environment.

In response, Duke has accused the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) of “regulatory overreach” and vowed to appeal the ruling.

The contamination in the area stems from the coal ash pond at the Sutton Plant located in Wilmington. Duke Energy stores some 106 million tons of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, in its home state of North Carolina – 84 million tons of which is dumped in waste ponds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these ponds pose a severe health risk: Breathing in the fumes is comparable to smoking one pack of cigarettes per day and the toxins in the ash have been linked to disease, cancer, respiratory illness and nerve damage.

Last year, an estimated 82,000 tons of coal ash spewed into the Dan River after two pipes ruptured underneath the ash pond outside a Duke plant in Eden, North Carolina. Mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals poisoned the water so severely that it became unsafe to physically touch.

Coal ash being stored in the West Pans. (Photo: Richard Webb)

Coal ash being stored in the West Pans. (Photo: Richard Webb)

The coal ash pond near the Sutton Plant is one of 32 such ponds retained by Duke in North Carolina. Duke, the largest electric utility in the nation, was accused by DENR of allowing “a host of coal ash contaminants to leach into the groundwater at the facility for several years.” Duke was fine $8.34 million for thallium contamination alone, which state officials determined had leached into the groundwater for 1,688 days.

In addition to thallium, state officials detected mercury, cadmium and arsenic in the surrounding watershed, all of which have been linked to cancer. On March 10, Duke was hit with $25,116,883.61 in fines, the largest such fine in the state’s history.

After the ruling, DENR Secretary Donald R. van der Vaar said, “Today’s enforcement action continues the aggressive approach this administration has taken on coal ash. In addition to holding the utility accountable for past contamination we have found across the state, we are also moving expeditiously to remove the threat to our waterways and groundwater from coal ash ponds statewide.”

Duke has protested the fine and plans to offer an appeal before the April 9 deadline. DENR, it claims, “acted contrary to law, exceeded its authority or jurisdiction, and didn’t follow proper rules and procedures.”

In a statement, Paul Newton, Duke’s North Carolina president, said “We take very seriously our responsibility to care for the communities around our facilities. That’s why we monitored groundwater at the Sutton plant, routinely shared data with the state, and voluntarily acted to ensure local residents continue to have a high-quality water supply.”

Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress Newton’s statement was “a laughable rewriting of history.”

“Duke and DENR have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to protect clean water,” he said.

Duke’s ties to North Carolina run deep, and DENR was only willing to seriously investigate coal ash contamination after significant outcry from environmental groups. The fact that the state’s governor, Pat McCrory, worked at Duke for 29 years has also raised accusations of corruption and collusion.

In the end, even with Duke facing further violations of the Clean Water Act on April 19, the $25.1 million fine is a drop in the bucket to a company with a market cap of $50.5 billion.

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