The nation's largest electricity provider could soon be back on the hook for a once-settled lawsuit alleging that it illegally contaminated groundwater through leaky coal ash dumps near Charlotte and Asheville in North Carolina.
State regulators had agreed to accept a $99,000 fine from Charlotte-based Duke Energy as part of an order that didn't include a requirement for the company to clean up its mess.
But on Friday, the the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it was asking for a judge to throw out that settlement, citing another judge's ruling this month that the agency was relying on bad legal advice when it agreed to the deal.
"We intend for our lawsuits against Duke Energy to move forward," John Skvarla, the agency's secretary, said in a statement. "We will continue to hold the utility accountable."
The terms of the deal were negotiated based on the state lawyers' interpretation of groundwater rules. Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway found the reading of the law to be wrong.
The lawsuit stems from spills at coal ash dumps last spring at the Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant and the Riverbend Steam Station. The state later filed additional lawsuits, which are still pending, against Duke Energy for similar environmental violations at 12 other spots in the state.
The state plans to partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address concerns about Duke Energy, officials said Friday. The EPA has been separately considering criminal charges.
"The state's goal is to clean up both the Dan River and to protect public health and the environment at the other Duke Energy facilities around the state, and we are pleased to announce that the EPA will join us as we address these important issues," Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for the company for 28 years, said in a statement. "Participation by the EPA will bring additional resources to help us resolve a difficult problem that spans more than six decades."
Environmentalists lashed out against the governor last year, saying he gave Duke Energy a lenient deal.
The state said Friday that Duke Energy had hired a contractor to start removing two deposits of ash from the Dan River. Meanwhile, a contractor fixing a boat ramp along the river struck a dredge line, the state said, causing a new discharge that could lead to further penalties.
At Cape Fear, regulators on Friday approved Duke Energy's emergency plan to stop a mix of water and coal ash from falling into the earth from a crack that formed this week.
The wastewater is formed after the utility burns coal to generate electricity. The waste is held in deposits that have formed leaks. Environmental protection groups have said that the coal ash needs to be stored in well-protected areas far from bodies of water.
Duke Energy, valued at nearly $50 billion on the New York Stock Exchange, has seen the price of its shares fall more than 3% during the last month, to $69.08.