RALEIGH, N.C. — State regulators in North Carolina have asked a judge to delay what environmentalists claim is a sweetheart deal with Duke Energy designed to protect the nation's largest electrical utility from heavy fines for allowing coal ash into the state's rivers.
The move came a week after a massive spill dumped up to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River from a Duke Energy containment basin at a shuttered coal-fired plant in Eden, N.C. Duke and state regulators have downplayed the severity of the spill.
Environmental groups, which say Duke dumped illegal levels of arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals into the river, criticized the state request as a way to buy time for Duke until the Dan River crisis fades.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Monday sought to put off a proposed consent decree with Duke that would not require it to clean up coal ash polluting waterways at Duke plants.
Environmental groups say the state proposed the agreement last summer to block their proposed federal lawsuits, which would have exposed Duke to potential heavy fines and cleanup requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists as well as state regulators agree that Duke has been polluting the state's waterways for years by allowing coal ash to seep from its 14 coal-fired plants, including the Dan River facility. But they disagree over how to hold Duke accountable.
John Skvarla, secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the agency had asked for a delay on the Duke agreement "in light of the recent event" at the Dan River plant. "This experience may cause us to reevaluate the proposed consent order," he said.
"We were already addressing coal ash ponds through our multiple lawsuits against Duke Energy, and we will continue on that course once we have an updated assessment of the situation statewide," he said.
Skvarla also said the department had created a task force to review all coal ash basins in the state "to prevent any further unpermitted release of coal ash or ash pond water."
Under the consent decree, Duke, a $50-billion company, would pay $99,000 in fines. But if successfully sued under the Clean Water Act, it would face potential fines of up to $37,500 a day, according to lawyers for environmental groups.
Regulators "hope to put this case on the back burner until the public furor dies down, and then come back later with another 'trust us' no-settlement settlement," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. The group says its attempt to file a federal suit against Duke last summer was blocked by the state settlement.
"To date, they have done everything possible to protect Duke," Holleman said of state regulators. "It's a sad commentary on the agency that is supposed to be protecting the public."
Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the state agency, said a federal magistrate judge had ruled that the agency was enforcing clean-water laws. He said Skvarla was the first department secretary to sue over coal ash basins, and was joined in four such suits by environmental groups.
Elliot acknowledged a change under Skvarla of the agency's "customer service attitude," but said the department's "primary mission remains to protect the environment."
Lisa Hoffmann, a Duke spokeswoman, said the company had been working on ways to safely shut down its coal ash basins, including the Dan River facility.
"We are eager to complete the work outlined in the proposed consent order and recognize the state would like to reevaluate it," Hoffmann said.
After assuring residents that treated Dan River water was safe to drink, regulators a week later issued a public advisory to stay away from the river.
Republicans took over the state Legislature in 2010 and the governor's office in 2012, vowing to soften or repeal environmental regulations and promote industry. Skvarla, a Raleigh businessman, has said the agency is a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he considers "customers."
In a letter to a Raleigh newspaper in December, Skvarla wrote: "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."
In a video message to agency employees in July, Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources, said the agency's primary job was not necessarily to implement safe drinking-water standards.