North Carolina’s Duke Energy pleaded guilty Thursday to nine violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act and will pay $192 million in criminal fines and restitution for illegally releasing toxic waste from five of its power plants into the environment.
The energy giant’s plea is part of a settlement with federal prosecutors and concludes an investigation that began after a pipe collapsed under a coal ash waste pond in February 2014, spilling 82,000 tons of toxic waste into the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border. The spill covered 70 miles of the river in toxic gray sludge – waste that is left over after coal is burned for energy.
Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility company, agreed to pay $68 million in criminal fines and $34 million on environmental projects and conservation efforts aimed at restoring rivers and wetlands in North Carolina and Virginia. The fine is the largest criminal fine for a federal offense in North Carolina’s history.
The settlement also mandates that Duke be sentenced to five years’ probation, during which an independent monitor will observe the company’s compliance with federal rules and regulations. The court may take further action if the monitors find that Duke violates the Clean Water Act again during its probation.
Before the sentencing, U.S. prosecutors argued that Duke Energy had repeatedly ignored warnings that its coal ash dumps throughout North Carolina were releasing toxic waste in the environment. Prosecutors said the company’s illegal coal-ash pollution stretched back to at least 2010.
According to the Associated Press, “At the hearing, prosecutors gave multiple examples where Duke employees knew or were warned that they were discharging pollution into the state’s waterways and they were slow to do anything or took no action at all.’
Judge Malcolm Howard read each charge aloud and asked the company if it had engaged in the illegal actions. The company’s chief legal officer, Julia Janson, replied yes and said “guilty” each time the judge asked how Duke was pleading to the count.
The charges were welcomed by environmental groups who for years have tried unsuccessfully to get regulators to hold Duke Energy accountable for pollution stemming from 32 coal ash dumps across the state. Conservationists have long criticized the “sweetheart deals” between N.C. authorities and Duke Energy that allowed extensive groundwater contamination to go unchecked for years.