CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy's chief executive said Wednesday the company is putting together a detailed plan to clean up nearly three dozen leaky coal ash pits across the state.
But Lynn Good told a business group at a Charlotte luncheon that it could take time to complete the task because Duke was taking a "fact-based and disciplined approach" to the problem. Duke's 14 coal-fired plants in North Carolina have 33 waste pits, all along lakes and rivers.
"Every site is different...We need to make sure the solutions make sense," she said.
She said the company takes responsibility for the Feb. 2 massive coal ash spill at Duke's Eden plant, which coated a 70 mile stretch of the Dean River in toxic sludge.
But she said the spill never threatened the drinking water of communities along the Dan River, adding that the overall water quality of the river is back to normal.
When asked to elaborate, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company and state regulators have been taking samples above the plant as a point of comparison.
"So water testing below the spill is the same as above and has been for a while now," she said in an email.
But Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, disagreed.
"The river has not been cleaned up. The Dan River, for 70 miles or more, has been seriously polluted with coal ash and the heavy metals and toxic substances that it contains. All Duke is claiming is that the coal ash pollution has now settled out of the water column and is left in the river near the bottom," Holleman said.
"From there, it can contaminate wildlife, be stirred up every time there is a rain or a flood, be moved back into the river water, and be deposited on people's property along the river," he said.
While Duke says it has publicly taken responsibility for the disaster, Holleman said its actions in court run counter to that notion.
Duke asked a judge on Monday to prevent citizens groups from taking part in a state Department of Environment and Natural Resources enforcement case that would force the company clean up the coal ash pits.
State regulators filed the complaint against Duke last year, and several citizens groups got involved in the case, saying the waste dumps polluted groundwater and river and streams.
In the court filings, Duke denied that it had violated any laws.
Asked by reporters after the speech why Duke would oppose the citizens groups' intervention, Good said Duke believes that state regulators "represent the citizens of North Carolina."
She also didn't rule out that cleanup costs might be passed along to consumers.
"Ultimately the determination of costs will be the responsibility of the North Carolina utility commission," she said.
Separately, emails released this week show that the U.S. Environmental Agency expressed concern last year that a proposed deal between state regulators and Duke to settle pollution violations at two of the company's coal ash dumps was too lenient.
State environmental regulators released more than 13,000 pages of public records in recent days as a response to media requests following the Dan River spill.
Among the items released was a Sept. 27 email from Denisse D. Diaz, chief of the EPA's Clean Water Enforcement Branch, in which the federal agency questions a proposed settlement over groundwater contamination at dumps near Charlotte and Asheville that would have required the $50 billion company to pay $99,000 in fines with no requirement to clean up the pollution.
Though monitoring wells installed by the company had for years documented groundwater contamination leaching from 33 unlined ash pits, state officials had never take action against Duke until a coalition of environmental groups moved to sue the company last year for violating the Clean Water Act. The state agency then used its authority to intervene, quickly proposing a settlement with modest fines.
"The consent order's proposed penalty amounts for past violations ... seem low considering the number of years these facilities are alleged to have been out of compliance," the EPA said.
EPA also expressed reservations about details of how Duke would be required to test for contaminants in the wastewater flowing out of its dumps into rivers and lakes, suggesting more stringent monitoring requirements.
State officials made modest technical changes to the settlement proposal in response to the EPA's concerns, but did not increase the amount of the fines.
In the wake of spill, state officials have been defending their earlier deal with Duke even as they have sought to distance themselves from it.
The state agency asked a judge to pull its own proposed settlement, the day after an Associated Press story in which environmentalists derided the agreement as a "sweetheart deal."
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory worked at Duke for more than 28 years and the company and its executives have remained generous contributors to his campaign and GOP groups that support him. McCrory, a Republican, denies Duke received any special treatment from his administration.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck
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