RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy received a delay Tuesday in pleading guilty to environmental crimes after the company raised the specter that bureaucratic red tape could result in power being cut to military bases across North Carolina.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard approved a one-month delay in Duke's plea and sentencing hearing for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, which had been set for later this week.
The nation's largest electricity company announced in February that it would admit guilt on nine misdemeanor counts and pay $102 million in fines and restitution over years of illegal pollution leaking from coal-ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. The company would also serve five years of probation, during which federal authorities would monitor its compliance with environmental laws.
Duke's lawyers said Tuesday the company needs a waiver from rules that bar corporations convicted of crimes from receiving or renewing federal contracts. Without the waiver, Duke said electrical service might be disrupted to military bases, post offices, courthouses, prisons and other federal facilities.
The first major contract at issue would be Duke's contract to provide electricity to the sprawling U.S. Army post at Fort Bragg, which expires Sept. 30.
Federal prosecutors opposed the delay, saying Duke had plenty of time to seek individual exemptions for each of its hundreds of federal service contracts in the state.
"It's difficult to imagine a federal contracting officer not finding an exemption," Assistant U.S. Attorney Banu Rangarajan told the judge. "The government has a compelling interest in moving forward."
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the company still intends to follow through with its agreement with prosecutors, which took months to negotiate, regardless of whether it gets a blanket exemption from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are committed to this agreement and focused on doing the right thing," Sheehan said. "We're not walking away from this agreement."
Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he was not surprised Duke sought the delay.
"Criminal defendants always have a reason they want to delay their day of reckoning," Holleman said. "But this does draw attention to the continuing negative ramifications of Duke's storage of its toxic coal ash in leaky pits."
The criminal investigation into Duke's operations began in February 2014 after a pipe collapsed under a coal ash dump at the company's plant in Eden, coating 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. However, prosecutors alleged in court filings that Duke's illegal dumping had been going back for years, to at least 2010.
Under a law approved by North Carolina legislators last year, Duke is required to either clean out or permanently cap its 32 coal ash dumps across the state by 2029.
Howard rescheduled Duke's sentencing hearing on the federal charges to May 14.
Concern that Duke's guilty pleas might cause the lights to go out at Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and other key military bases spurred the smiling senior judge to invoke the lyrics from "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia."
"'Don't trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer,'" the judge recited from the bench. "'Cause the judge in the town's got bloodstains on his hand.'"
With a chuckle, the judge then clarified he wasn't referring to any of the Southern lawyers he counts among his friends.
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