RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy said Tuesday it plans to begin dredging coal ash out of a North Carolina river as the state's environmental agency moved to scuttle a previously proposed settlement with the company over pollution leaking from waste dumps at its power plants.
Lawyers for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked a judge late Monday to disregard its own proposed settlement with the nation's largest electricity provider. Under the deal, Duke would have paid fines of $99,111 for pollution that leaked from two coal dumps like the one that ruptured Feb. 2, spewing out enough toxic sludge into the Dan River to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools. The deal proposed over the summer covered plants near Asheville and Charlotte, while this month's spill was near the town of Eden.
The state dumped the settlement one day after a story by The Associated Press in which environmentalists criticized the arrangement as a sweetheart deal aimed at shielding Duke from far more expensive penalties the $50 billion company might face under the federal Clean Water Act.
The settlement would have required Duke to study how to stop the contamination, but included no requirement to clean up the dumps near Asheville and Charlotte.
Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday a new task force would be created at the environmental agency within the month to assess all 31 of Duke's coal ash dumps in the state.
"We need a comprehensive plan to address the future of coal ash in North Carolina and we need to make sure we have all available resources to respond to this situation, including the knowledge we have gained during our environmental assessment and investigation into the spill of the coal ash into the Dan River," said McCrory, a Republican who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years.
Influential GOP lawmakers also called Tuesday for legislation requiring Duke to move its coal ash dumps away from rivers and lakes.
On the afternoon of Feb. 2, a security guard at Duke's Dan River Steam Station discovered that a pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond had collapsed. The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles. The accident ranks as the third-largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history.
The public was not told about the breach until the following day and initial reports provided by Duke and DENR did not make the disaster's scale clear. It took six days for the company to seal the pipe.
State regulators initially said testing showed levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants in the river were safe for fish and humans. On Sunday, however, the state officials admitted they had made an "honest mistake while interpreting the results" and warned people to avoid prolonged contact with the water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has conducted its own tests, but hasn't disclosed detailed results. Federal officials were hosting a community briefing Tuesday night in Danville, Va., a city of nearly 43,000 people about 20 miles downstream of the spill site.