CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy must take immediate action to eliminate sources of groundwater contamination at its coal ash dumps, a judge said Thursday in a ruling that came from a complaint filed before a massive spill from one of the utility's plants coated 70 miles of a North Carolina river in toxic gray sludge.
North Carolina has 14 coal-fired plants and at least 32 ash dumps spread across the state - all stored in unlined, leaky pits near public waterways. Environmental groups said in a complaint that despite repeated calls - and monitoring wells that showed contaminated groundwater at the ash dumps - regulators failed to take enforcement action.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said state regulators have failed to properly apply state law to the toxic ash pits.
Environmental groups praised the ruling.
"This ruling enforces a common-sense requirement in existing law - before you can clean up contaminated groundwater, you first must stop the source of the contamination," said D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed an action in October, 2012, to force regulators to enforce the state's groundwater protection laws.
Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni said the company would examine the judge's ruling.
"We're considering this ruling as we take another look at our management of coal ash basins," he said in an email.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in an email that it also would review the court's decision.
This case began in October, 2012, when the environmental law center on behalf of several groups asked the state Environment Management Commission for a ruling to clarify how the state was applying rules for groundwater contamination at waste dumps. The 15-member commission - which is part of DENR - is responsible for adopting rules to protect the state's air and water resources.
For years, environmental groups pushed the department to enforce state water-quality standards to halt groundwater contamination at coal-ash dumps. But they say that coordination and cooperation has become even more overt since the January 2013 inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke for 28 years.
The SELC wanted the commission to order regulators to force Duke to take immediate corrective action when toxic chemicals in the groundwater exceeded water quality standards "at or beyond the compliance boundary."