Duke Energy is guilty, nine times over, for its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.
The energy giant pleaded guilty last week to nine misdemeanor violations of the federal Clean Water Act, accepting a punishment of five years probation and $102 million in fines and restitution.
The plea deal came after last year's 39,000-ton ash spill in Eden's Dan River, an environmental catastrophe that spurred an ever-widening federal investigation of Duke Energy's leaky ash impoundments in North Carolina.
Federal prosecutors say the company failed to maintain equipment and ignored repeated warnings that its ash ponds were not safe at facilities in Eden, Mount Holly, Asheville, Goldsboro and Moncure.
"Companies that cut corners and contaminate waters on which communities depend, as Duke did here, will be held accountable," Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said at a press conference.
During that press conference following last week's sentencing in Greenville, federal officials did not rule out a civil case against Duke Energy. And while a U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to discuss whether criminal charges could be filed against individuals involved in Duke's coal ash spill, environmental law experts say that could very well happen.
"The fact that you haven't heard about any criminal prosecution happening doesn't mean it's not happening," says Ryke Longest, director of Duke University's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. "A criminal investigation isn't really over until the news stops coming."
Longest says federal prosecutors could eventually file charges against Duke employees or officials at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, who have been accused of being too slow or lax in dealing with Duke's ash impoundments.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has been urging Duke and DENR to clean up leaky coal ash ponds in North Carolina since 2008, but state officials did not force action from the company until after the Dan River spill.
Last year's Coal Ash Management Act approved by state lawmakers orders the company to dispose of an estimated 100 million tons of coal ash stored at its most "high-risk" plants in the next 15 years. Duke plans to dump up to 20 million tons in lined clay pits in Chatham and Lee counties—plans that have come under heavy criticism from environmental groups and locals.
As part of its settlement, Duke will pay a $68 million fine—the state's highest in the Clean Water Act's 43-year history—and $34 million to environmental preservation and wildlife organizations. The utility will also be subject to regular audits by a court-appointed monitor to ensure compliance in cleaning up its coal ash.
"The massive coal ash spill into North Carolina's Dan River last year was a crime," John Cruden, an assistant attorney general for the DOJ, told the media. "And it was the result of repeated failures by Duke Energy's subsidiaries to exercise controls over coal ash facilities."