RALEIGH, North Carolina — Duke Energy could legally leak pollutants from some of its coal ash dumps under new wastewater permits proposed Friday by North Carolina regulators.
Just days after federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Duke over the leaks, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources released new draft permits for three of Duke's coal ash sites. New permits for Duke's remaining coal ash dumps across the state are to follow.
Among those issued Friday is a draft permit for Riverbend Steam Station near Charlotte, one of five plants cited Feb. 20 with Clean Water Act violations. Duke says it will plead guilty to nine misdemeanor counts and pay $102 million to settle the case.
The proposed permit would add "12 potentially contaminated groundwater seeps" in the dump's earthen dam to Riverbend's allowed discharges — the same leaks cited as violations last month.
The new permits will require Duke to monitor the leaks to make sure the pollution coming from them don't exceed state water-quality standards. Duke will continue to collect its own samples and test them at its company lab, self-reporting the results to the state.
"The violations were that they had not properly told us about those discharges when they applied for their last permit, so those outfalls were not properly permitted," said Jeff Poupart with the state Division of Water Quality. "Now they are seeking to have them permitted as an interim measure until those outfalls can be eliminated because of the closure of the pond or other technical methods."
Duke's 32 coal ash dumps scattered at 14 sites across the state have been under intense scrutiny since last year, when a pipe collapse at the company's plant in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge. The ash, which is the waste left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, contains such toxic heavy metals as arsenic, selenium, chromium and mercury.
Poupart said requiring Duke to plug the leaks would potentially weaken the dams at the ash dumps, which collectively hold more than 100 million tons of waste.
A new state law passed in August requires Duke to either clean up or permanently cap all of its ash dumps in North Carolina by 2029. The Riverbend plant is among four "high priority" sites set to close by 2019.
Poupart said his agency consulted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Duke's new permits. The public will have 30 days to submit comments on the proposed changes.
No one from the EPA responded Friday to messages seeking comment.
Duke had adamantly denied any wrongdoing for years, but in December conceded in regulatory filings that it had identified about 200 leaks at its ash dumps statewide that together ooze out more than 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater each day.
Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the company is working as quickly as possible to comply with the law and close all of its ash dumps in the state within the next 15 years.
"Ultimately, ash basin seeps will be resolved by closing the basins," Culbert said. "Finalizing new wastewater and industrial stormwater permits are critical steps to advance the ash basin closure process. We're ready to begin moving ash at Riverbend as soon as we receive permits and other necessary approvals."
DJ Gerken, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has sued Duke over its coal ash pollution, called the proposed changes to Duke's permits disappointing.
"They are issuing interim permits pending what they say will be total elimination of discharges at some undefined point in the future, essentially making the illegal discharges legal for a while," Gerken said, adding that it will have an impact on the environment. "Ordinarily a compliance measure like this would have interim steps toward eliminating the illegal discharge — not a vague promise for doing it."
Weiss reported from Charlotte, North Carolina.
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