RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina environmental regulators ordered Duke Energy on Tuesday to stop the spread of groundwater pollution from coal ash dumps outside Wilmington after tests showed contamination in nearby drinking water wells.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said recent tests showed high levels of boron in three wells near the Sutton Steam Plant. The presence of boron in groundwater is a recognized indicator of coal ash contamination.
The state gave the utility until July 9 to prevent further migration of the underground pollution and submit a monitoring plan. Failure to meet the requirements could result in new fines against the company.
In March, the state fined Duke $25 million for groundwater contamination that has been seeping for years from the plant's unlined dumps. The ash left behind after burning coal to generate electricity contains such toxic heavy metals as lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium.
The company is appealing the state fine, which it says is excessive. Sutton is among the "high priority" coal ash sites that must be cleaned out and closed under a state law passed in the wake of last year's spill at a Duke plant in Eden, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
"We agree with the importance of protecting groundwater and have taken actions ourselves to address the situation, but we have serious legal concerns about the way DENR calculated the fine," said Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman. "Closing the Sutton basins will ultimately address groundwater issues. We are awaiting the necessary state permits to begin that process."
The state agency also announced Tuesday it has hired an outside law firm to help press its case against Duke. The business law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton will assist the state attorney general's office, which typically represents state agencies in regulatory issues.
"It is evident that Duke Energy is choosing to spend its virtually limitless legal resources to fight fines for clearly documented groundwater contamination stemming from its coal ash impoundments near the Sutton plant," said Sam Hayes, the general counsel for the state environmental department. "In addition to the attorney general's office, the state has hired outside counsel to form the best legal team possible to make sure Duke Energy is held accountable for its assault on the environment."
While supporting efforts to force Duke to clean up its groundwater pollution, environmentalists criticized the state Tuesday for moving too slowly and not taking as forceful actions at other Duke plants. After denying any wrongdoing for years, Duke recently admitted in regulatory filings that its 32 ash dumps across the state are collectively leaking about 3 million gallons a day of contaminated wastewater into the ground and nearby waterways.
"It is way past time that DENR and Duke Energy take action to halt the spread of groundwater contamination in Wilmington," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents a coalition of clean water groups. "We gave DENR and Duke Energy notice of this serious problem two years ago and have been urging them to stop the groundwater contamination ever since. It is too bad that it took two years for something to happen, and the Wilmington community needs this protection of its groundwater supplies as soon as possible."