Coal ash ponds and basins at Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Duke Energy graphic. Click to view full-size image.

This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer.

By Bruce Henderson,

Duke Energy will pay $7 million in state fines for groundwater contamination at its 14 coal-fired power plants and spend $10 million to $15 million to accelerate cleanups at four of them, North Carolina’s environmental agency said Tuesday.

The announcement came as Duke challenged a $25.1 million state fine over contamination at its Sutton power plant in Wilmington. Duke has called the fine by the Department of Environmental Quality overly punitive.

“This agreement holds Duke Energy accountable for past groundwater contamination and mandates that Duke expeditiously clean up polluted groundwater near its coal ash sites,” DEQ secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement.

“Our chief goal is to protect the environment and public health while requiring corrective action to restore groundwater quality. This settlement resolves the issue of fines for past violations and allows DEQ to commit all of its resources to overseeing Duke Energy’s clean-up process.”

Duke agreed to accelerate cleanups at Sutton, its Asheville power plant, the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro and the Belews Creek plant in Stokes County.

Duke challenged the state-record Sutton fine on the basis of a 2011 departmental policy memo that favored corrective action over fines. DEQ said it will rescind the policy “to clarify that state government has all the tools required to enforce the law and penalize future polluters,” the department said.

DEQ, known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources until legislators renamed it this month, has been criticized by environmental advocates for lax policing of Duke. Gov. Pat McCrory was a longtime Duke employee.

Van der Vaart said the settlement announced Tuesday saves the state the cost of litigation.

Contaminated groundwater has been been found near ash ponds at all 14 of Duke’s coal plants in the state. Groundwater tests are underway to learn whether ash has also contaminated private wells near the power plants.

Legislation passed last year requires Duke to close all 32 of its coal ash ponds in the state by 2029.

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