RICHMOND, Virginia — Environmental and water protection groups call Virginia's proposed $2.5 million settlement with Duke Energy over a 2014 coal ash spill "grossly inadequate."
They contend $50 million is a more appropriate settlement to compensate the state for the environmental and still-unknown consequences of potentially toxic sludge that flowed into Southside Virginia from a coal ash dump on the Dan River in North Carolina.
The criticism is contained in filings with the state Water Control Board, which is expected to consider the proposed settlement in late June. The public comment period on the settlement concludes Wednesday.
"We don't understand why the state is taking such a lightweight role in this thing," said Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association. The spill's impact on fish and other aquatic life won't be known for years, he said.
"You want to penalize them for doing it, you want to deter anyone from doing it in the future, and you want to take into account the entire scope of the misconduct," Lester said in an interview Tuesday.
In early April, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the North Carolina utility agreed to the $2.5 million settlement stemming from the February 2014 spill.
Spokesmen for the DEQ and Duke called the proposed settlement appropriate.
"That's why DEQ and Duke reached the agreement, because we believe it's the best way to address the issue," DEQ spokesman William Hayden said.
"We believe the agreement that we reached with the Virginia DEQ does provide positive benefits for the citizens of Virginia and will help to promote positive benefits as well to the waterways in the state," Duke spokesman Jeff Brooks said.
While the spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash originated in North Carolina, it affected areas in Virginia as well, coating 70 miles of the river in gray sludge. The city of Danville was particularly hard hit after coal ash piled up behind a dam. The largest deposits of the ash have since been dredged from the river.
The state settlement does not preclude localities from seeking their own compensation.
Officials in Danville, a former mill town on the Dan River, have said the spill has set back economic development and made some residents wary of the river despite testing showing water supplies are safe.
City Manager Joe King referred questions on Danville's plans to the city attorney, who declined comment because of "ongoing communications" with Duke Energy.
Brooks confirmed the talks to "address any impacts" arising from the spill. He cited, as an example, enhancements to a park that served as a staging ground for the coal ash removal from the river.
The state's settlement was criticized by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed extensive comments on behalf of Lester's group and the Dan River Basin Association. It cited Duke's $102 million penalty for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
"The proposed $2.5 million settlement amount is grossly inadequate, and does not begin to cover the kinds of projects Duke Energy will need to support to mitigate the harm it has caused to Virginia," the SELC wrote in its filing.
The SELC said a $50 million penalty is the "minimum acceptable amount for any settlement that is to have public legitimacy."
The proposed settlement will be decided by the seven members of the Water Control Board, all of whom are appointed by the governor.
"Typically they do follow DEQ's recommendation, but we'll see what happens," Hayden said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .