The Environmental Protection Agency and a top U.S. energy provider reached a settlement agreement Thursday in which the company agreed to clean up the remains of a February coal ash spill that contaminated 70 miles of river in North Carolina and Virginia.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, which has been conducting cleanup work on its own dollar since the crisis began, will pay the EPA for the cost of overseeing the project. There was no estimate of how much the cleanup would ultimately cost.
Environmentalists hailed the agreement, which was reached under federal Superfund laws and which goes into effect immediately.
"This is the first binding agreement [in North Carolina that requires] cleanup of coal ash pollution, and that is a good thing," Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the Los Angeles Times. But he cautioned that the agreement's effectiveness was "dependent upon how Duke implements it and how thoroughly the EPA enforces it."
On Feb. 2, 30,000 to 39,000 cubic yards of coal ash -- material left over after coal is burned -- were released into the Dan River after the collapse of a 48-inch storm-drain pipe that ran beneath a Duke Energy containment pond, according to the EPA.
Twenty-seven million gallons of ash pond water waste were also released into the river, which is used for drinking, fishing and recreation and which runs into Virginia. A second, smaller storm drain at the Duke spill site was also found to be dumping arsenic-tainted groundwater into the river.
After the spill, the EPA reported that samples of surface water turned up traces of arsenic, lead, aluminum, iron, beryllium, copper, boron, zinc, nitrate nitrogen and manganese that exceeded acceptable EPA risk levels; sediment samples turned up similar contamination.
The spill also left a political mess in North Carolina, with advocates decrying what they saw as overly cozy relations between state and company officials. Federal prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into state environmental regulators, and the disaster cemented the handling of coal ash as a top issue for area ecological advocates.
In a statement Thursday, Duke Energy said river water quality has since "returned to normal and drinking water has remained safe," although a company spokesman told The Times that some coal-ash deposits -- including a 2,500-ton deposit at the bottom of the river near the town of Danville, Va. -- remained.
"We'll continue the work until the job is done," David Scanzoni, a spokesman for Duke Energy, told The Times. There was no timetable on when the company would be through with its work, he said, but added, "There haven't been a lot of other deposits found."
In an SEC filing Thursday, the company said it didn’t know how much it would cost to clean up the remaining contamination in the river, but said the amount was "not expected to be material to the company" -- in other words, not expected to affect the company’s financial health or future earnings.
The company also said the EPA had so far requested reimbursements for less than $1 million related to overseeing the spill response.
Duke shareholders, however -- who are expected to bear the cost of the cleanup -- filed an unrelated lawsuit Thursday contending that the company had potentially exposed itself to billions of dollars of liability due to its handling of coal ash ponds, according to the Charlotte Observer.
According to the Superfund settlement with the EPA, Duke will retain contractors to continue monitoring, to remove and to dispose of the remaining coal ash, and to provide a report on the safety of the company's spill site.
Duke is subject to penalties if it fails to carry out the work or if the EPA is forced to take over the Dan River cleanup.
"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," EPA Regional Administrator Heather McTeer Toney said in a statement Thursday.
Within 30 days, Duke will submit a public health and safety plan to the EPA for review. The company also needs to issue a final report within 60 days of finishing its cleanup work.
"This [agreement] deals with the cleanup of the ash that's spilled into the Dan River, and that's important, but our goal is for this to be the first and only and final such agreement," said Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney.
The advocacy group has been pushing for the cleanup of coal ash at 14 Duke Energy storage sites across the state, saying those sites are pollution risks.