RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Federal environmental officials said Thursday that they have reached a deal with Duke Energy to clean up its mess from a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River that coated 70 miles of the waterway in North Carolina and Virginia with toxic gray sludge.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had finalized an enforceable agreement with the nation's largest electricity company over the Feb. 2 spill that was triggered when a pipe collapsed at Duke's Dan River Steam Station.
EPA will oversee the cleanup in consultation with federal wildlife officials under provisions in the Superfund law. Duke will reimburse the federal government for its oversight costs, including those incurred in the emergency response to the spill.
"EPA will work with Duke Energy to ensure that cleanup at the site, and affected areas, is comprehensive based on sound scientific and ecological principles, complies with all Federal and State environmental standards, and moves as quickly as possible," said Heather McTeer Toney, the EPA's regional administrator based in Atlanta. "Protection of public health and safety remains a primary concern, along with the long-term ecological health of the Dan River."
The agreement makes no mention of any fines imposed against Duke, which has its headquarters in Charlotte. EPA did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about whether any civil penalties could still be forthcoming.
Duke called the agreement "a significant milestone" in the company's "ongoing efforts to restore and monitor the Dan River and surrounding environment. "
"Duke Energy is fully committed to the river's long-term health and well-being. River water quality has returned to normal and drinking water has remained safe," spokesman Dave Scanzoni said Thursday in an email.
Scanzoni didn't immediately respond to questions about the EPA's statement in the agreement, which said that without the cleanup, the spill would continue to pose a "substantial threat to public health" and the environment.
Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Duke has tried to downplay the effects of the spill, acting like "it was no big deal." But he said the EPA doesn't enter into a Superfund agreement "when there is nothing to be concerned about."
Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites.
"The Superfund statute isn't involved unless it's something serious. Superfund isn't invoked when someone just spills sand and dirt into the river. The very fact that the EPA is using the Superfund statute underscores the serious nature of what happened," he said