Coal Company Gets Slap on the Wrist

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Duke Energy has been criminally charged under the Clean Water Act for dumping coal ash waste directly into rivers and groundwater supplies, but they’ve agreed to a settlement for an irrelevant amount of money to the company.

Federal prosecutors charged Duke with nine counts of misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act late Friday, saying that the energy company had been dumping coal ash from power plants in five North Carolina locations since at least 2010. Duke isn’t challenging the case — instead, it has already worked out a proposed plea bargain with the federal government. If approved, the bargain would require the company to pay a total of $102.2 million — $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and projects to help mitigate the effects of the pollution.

“We are accountable for what happened at Dan River and have learned from this event,” Lynn Good, Duke’s president and CEO said in a statement. “Our highest priorities are safe operations and the well-being of the people and communities we serve.”

This is how much of a “high priority” the company makes of that:

Duke’s problem with coal ash pollution made headlines last February, when a storage pond from a closed power plant leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning that can contain toxins such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water into North Carolina’s Dan River. That spill sparked increased pressure on Duke to stop polluting the state’s rivers and to clean up the coal ash that had spilled in the Dan River — something the company started doing in May.

The spill also marked the beginning of a string of environmental citations for Duke — later last February, North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cited five more Duke power plants for failing to hold storm water permits, and in March, a North Carolina judge ruled that Duke must immediately act to stop the groundwater contamination caused by the company’s 14 coal-fired power plants in the state.

And last December, Duke reported 200 seeps at its coal-fired power plants in North Carolina in its filings to state regulators filings to state regulators in December, with seeps at two plants leaking almost 1 million gallons every day. According to the filings, six power plants contained seeps with levels of arsenic that were up to 140 times higher than North Carolina’s safety standard, and two power plants contained seeps with higher-than-normal levels of selenium, which can kill wildlife.

Duke’s annual revenue is about $25 billion. And this went on for years, not just one year. If you divide that settlement amount by only four years, we’re talking 1/1000th of their annual revenue. That doesn’t even qualify as a slap on the wrist, it’s more like a sternly worded reprimand.

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  • kantalope

    And it’s probably cheaper than fixing the problem would be. One billion to fix the problem or 100 million to pay the fine; which would you pick?

  • colnago80

    Aside from issues of CO(2) from coal burning power plants, this is another good reason to phase them out.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I thought that’s why big business purchased the US government in the first place; to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

  • eric

    Sadly, I think the corporate bankruptcy laws are such that you could never extract from these companies what they should pay. If you get close to that, the CEO will just declare the company bankrupt and everyone will walk away without having to pay anything.

    IIRC, Jared Diamond pointed out that this is pretty much SOP for mining companies in much of the west: break environmental laws to extract maximum profit, declare bankruptcy as soon as the government requires you to pay for damages.

  • Modusoperandi

    Yes, but look at all the extra shareholder value externalizing those negatives has created.

  • DataWrangler

    This is the sort of thing we need mandatory minimum sentencing for. I propose one year free service to the affected customer base.

  • lorn

    The machine works, all will bow down before it.

    Once again it has been shown that the core of all business is to privatize profits and socialize liabilities.

  • jameshanley

    While I suspect this probably is much too low a fine–as mist environmental fines are–focusing on a firm’s revenue, rather than their net revenue, is misleading.

  • anubisprime

    Maybe the dance can be revisited at a future time…Companies with the ethics of a shit house pox ridden rat can be guaranteed to repeat their ‘mistakes’ …it is what they do!