Duke Energy does not have to begin cleaning up coal ash ponds that are contaminating the ground water in several locations across North Carolina, the state Supreme Court ruled June 11, overturning the decision of a lower state court last spring.
Duke, the largest provider of electricity in the country, has been fighting environmental groups for years over its coal ash ponds, which store the toxic byproducts of coal burning. Environmental groups tried to sue Duke Energy three times in 2013 to force the company to clean up its 33 coal ash dumps throughout the state.
The environmental groups took legal action after state regulators failed to act on evidence provided by conservationists of groundwater contamination caused by the coal ash ponds, including high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, other heavy metals, and toxins.
State regulators blocked the citizen lawsuits every time, intervening at the last minute to assert their own authority and take enforcement action in state court. Negotiations over these court actions led to settlements that were barely more than a slap on the hand, environmentalists warned.
In January 2014 environmental groups sued Duke Energy again, alleging the state Environmental Management Commission erred in ruling whether the company’s operations at 14 coal-fired facilities were compliant with North Carolina’s environmental regulations.
Then, on Feb. 2, 2014, a breach in Duke Energy’s coal ash pond spilled about 40,000 tons of coal ash waste into the Dan River – enough toxic sludge to fill 73 Olympic-size swimming pools.
In March 2014, a trial court ruled that Duke needed to take immediate action to address ground water contamination at all of its coal-fired facilities. Duke and the Environmental Management Commission appealed the ruling.
According to Bloomberg, the North Carolina Supreme Court found the environmentalists’ claims were moot, and that the Legislature had already “addressed public concern through a law enacted in September 2014 requiring the company to close all 32 of its coal ash ponds in the state by 2030, with closures and cleanups prioritized based on risk.”
Environmental groups warn the decision is just a license for Duke Energy to keep doing business as usual, unfettered by environmental regulations.
An attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the ruling with a statement saying the court’s decision “confirms that Duke Energy successfully worked the politics of the North Carolina General Assembly to win changes in the law giving it a pass from complying with the same laws North Carolina has long enforced against small businesses and land owners.”