Duke Energy to Dredge River After Coal Ash Deal Nixed

Duke Energy said Tuesday it plans to begin dredging coal ash out of a North Carolina river as the state's environmental agency moved to scuttle a previously proposed settlement with the company over pollution leaking from waste dumps at its power plants.

Lawyers for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources asked a judge late Monday to disregard its own proposed settlement with the nation's largest electricity provider.

Under the deal, Duke would have paid fines of $99,111 for pollution that leaked from two coal dumps like the one that ruptured Feb. 2, spewing out enough toxic sludge into the Dan River to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools.

The deal proposed over the summer covered plants near Asheville and Charlotte, while this month's spill was near the town of Eden.

The state dumped the settlement one day after a story by The Associated Press in which environmentalists criticized the arrangement as a sweetheart deal aimed at shielding Duke from far more expensive penalties the $50 billion company might face under the federal Clean Water Act.

Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday a new task force would be created at the environmental agency within the month to assess all 31 of Duke's coal ash dumps in the state.

On the afternoon of Feb. 2, a security guard at Duke's Dan River Steam Station discovered that a pipe running under a 27-acre toxic waste pond had collapsed. The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles.

The accident ranks as the third-largest such coal ash spill in U.S. history.

State regulators initially said testing showed the river water was safe for fish and humans.

On Sunday, however, the state officials admitted they had made an "honest mistake while interpreting the results" and warned people to avoid prolonged contact with the water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new test results Tuesday showing elevated levels for lead and copper in samples collected from the Dan River last week.

— The Associated Press

In this Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 photo, signs of coal ash swirl in the water in the Dan River in Danville, Va. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. Gerry Broome / AP