by Billy Ball
Julia Janson, chief legal officer for Duke Energy, had to say that word over and over in a federal courthouse in Greenville Thursday as the giant utility pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanor violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
As expected, the company will be required to pay $102 million in fines and restitution for its crimes, part of a plea agreement Duke attorneys reached with federal prosecutors following last year's 39,000-ton coal ash spill in Eden's Dan River.
Duke was also facing criminal charges brought by federal prosecutors for illegal ash discharges at their Mount Holly, Asheville, Goldsboro and Moncure plants. In addition to the fines, the company was sentenced to five years probation Thursday, which will require monitoring of its ongoing coal ash cleanup statewide.
Prosecutors argued in federal court that the utility ignored warnings that its coal ash impoundments were in danger of leaking.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups have been urging Duke to clean up its leaky coal ash ponds since 2008, although North Carolina officials did not order the company to do so until after last year's highly-publicized spill in the Dan River.
In the next 15 years, the company must dispose of an estimated 100 million tons of North Carolina coal ash, which contains toxic ingredients such as arsenic and selenium.
Its initial disposal plans include dumping up to 20 million tons in lined pits in Chatham and Lee counties, plans which have come under heavy criticism from environmental groups and locals.