Canadian Manufacturing

Federal grand jury meets in Duke Energy coal ash spill investigation

The jury is examining whether North Carolina regulators, some of whom spent careers working at Duke Energy, had helped shield Duke from lawsuits related to repeated spills

RALEIGH, N.C.—A federal grand jury was set to convene Tuesday as part of a widening criminal investigation triggered by the massive Duke Energy coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge.

The session at the federal courthouse in Raleigh comes as environmental groups amp up pressure on regulators and lawmakers to force Duke to clean up the leaky, unlined ash pits polluting North Carolina’s waterways. Prosecutors have issued at least 23 grand jury subpoenas to Duke executives and state officials.

Thomas Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, declined to comment, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

The subpoenas seek records from Duke, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the state Utilities Commission. They include reams of documents, including emails, memos and reports, related to the Feb. 2 spill into the Dan River and the state’s oversight of the company’s nearly three dozen other coal ash dumps spread out at 14 power plants.

Among those whose personnel records were subpoenaed is Tom Reeder, the state’s water quality director.

The first batch of subpoenas was issued Feb. 10, the day after an Associated Press story raised questions about whether North Carolina regulators had helped shield Duke from a coalition of environmental groups that wanted to sue under the U.S. Clean Water Act to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution.

Their efforts were stymied by the state environmental agency, which used its authority under the federal act to intervene. The state quickly proposed what environmentalists derided as a “sweetheart deal” where the $50 billion Charlotte-based company would have paid just $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater leeching from two of its plants with no requirement that it stop the pollution.

That proposed settlement was put on hold indefinitely after last month’s spill.

Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, worked for Duke for more than 28 years before retiring to campaign for the state’s highest elected post.

Following the spill, McCrory and state environmental secretary John Skvarla asked Duke for details about company plans to clean up the coal ash dumps.

Duke President Lynn Good responded last week. She said it would take the company at least two years to clean up the Eden dump, which spilled the ash into the Dan River. She said the company will move its remaining ash away from the river to either a lined landfill or a “lined structural fill solution.”

Good said the company will be responsible for cleaning up after the disaster, though it is not clear how the miles of contaminated river bottom might be restored or how long that might take. Public health officials have advised people to avoid contact with the water in the Dan and not to eat the fish.

She said the company will also move ash dumps in the Asheville and Charlotte area, and is looking at options for the Sutton pits near Wilmington.

The co-chair of the commission that would consider the legislation, Republican Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherfordton, is a retired Duke Energy engineer who ran the five coal-fired generators at the company’s Cliffside Steam Station.

In another development, North Carolina regulators say they are investigating whether Duke Energy broke the law when workers pumped contaminated water from a coal ash dump near the Cape Fear River.

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