FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — North Carolina regulators cited Duke Energy on Thursday, saying the utility deliberately dumped 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for several cities and towns in the state.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the giant utility, responsible for a massive spill from a different coal ash containment pond Feb. 2, had illegally pumped the ash from two coal ash ponds at its Cape Fear plant in Moncure, N.C., and into a canal that feeds into the Cape Fear River.
Regulators said they caught Duke pumping the toxic ash March 11, one day after an environmental group took aerial photographs of what it said were pumps illegally dumping the waste. Environmental groups have accused the agency of coddling Duke Energy and allowing coal ash waste to seep for years from the utility’s 14 coal-fired plants in the state.
The state agency said Duke Energy had been getting away with the dumping by telling regulators it was part of routine maintenance. Regulators said inspectors had determined that 44 million gallons of toxic waste had been pumped from one pond for 78 days, and 17 million gallons pumped from a second pond at the site for 31 days.
“We were notified by phone in August that Duke Energy intended to conduct routine maintenance work at these ash ponds,” said Tom Reeder, director of the state Division of Water Resources. “The state’s investigation revealed that the pumping activities ongoing at this plant far exceeded what would reasonably be considered routine maintenance.”
The agency said it had notified downstream municipal water agencies of the dumping, but said they had not reported any problems with drinking water so far. Regulators said they were taking water samples at sites on the Cape Fear River, which runs through Fayetteville on its way to the coast near Wilmington, N.C.
The plant where the pumping took place is in central North Carolina, about 30 miles southwest of the state capital, Raleigh.
Late Thursday, regulators said they were responding to a report of a crack in an earthen dam that holds in coal ash waste at the Cape Fear plant.
Duke Energy used two pumps to bypass vertical spillway pipes, known as risers, that drain off excess surface water during heavy rains. But using the pumps risked dredging up dangerous heavy metals that settle at the bottom of the ponds.
Regulators said Duke illegally pumped so much water out of the ponds that “the impoundments no longer properly function as treatment systems.”
Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, also has been cited by state regulators for the Feb. 2 spill, which coated the Dan River with toxic coal ash sludge on the North Carolina-Virginia border for at least 70 miles. The state agency has sued the utility in state court alleging coal ash violations, precluding attempts by environmental groups to sue Duke Energy in federal court alleging violation of the Clean Water Act.
Duke Energy officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Coal ash is produced when coal is burned to create electricity.
Duke has 30 days to respond to the state’s citation. After that, regulators could impose a fine of up to $25,000 a day for each violation. Duke is a $50-billion corporation.
Environmentalists accuse the agency of being too cozy with Duke as part of new leadership installed by a Republican takeover of state government. The current director, appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — who was a 28-year Duke employee — has downplayed enforcement and said the agency should serve “partners” and “customers” like Duke.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, took aerial photographs March 10 of what it said was illegal pumping and pressured state regulators to punish Duke Energy. The state agency, known as DENR, said inspectors visited the Cape Fear plant the day after the photos were taken as part of a statewide inspection of coal ash ponds after the Feb. 2 spill, which was the third-largest in U.S. history.
Peter Harrison, staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, criticized Duke for the dumping and state regulators for not cracking down on Duke over the Dan River spill and what he said had been years of illegal seepage from the utility’s coal ash ponds.
“The only thing more disturbing than DENR’s slow, carefree response in the wake of Dan River is Duke’s audacious, clandestine pollution,” Harrison said.
Harrison said state regulators were shown the photographs. He accused the agency of claiming that it had stumbled upon the violations “by some great coincidence.”
Environmental groups have been pressing the state for years to require utilities to move coal ash from wet lagoons near waterways to dry, lined landfills away from sources of drinking water.
“If the Cape Fear coal ash were stored in a safe, dry, lined landfill away from the river, the Cape Fear River would not have been polluted, and Duke Energy would not be facing this latest legal problem,’' said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.