Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK), the U.S. largest electrical utility, has pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act for polluting four major rivers with coal ash and for failing to properly maintain equipment at a number of power plants in its home state of North Carolina.
According to a statement from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the company, who also agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution, is currently appealing a $25.1 million penalty levied by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources in March over alleged groundwater contamination from coal ash at the company’s Sutton Plant.
Four of the nine criminal violations stemmed from a massive coal-ash spill in February last year, at the Charlotte-based company’s Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C. The spill sent up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of coal-ash wastewater into the Dan River, spreading 62 miles to the Virginia border, becoming the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
Besides the hefty fine, the firm has been placed on five years of probation for environmental crimes.
Environmentalists had complained for years that Duke was polluting waterways and groundwater with coal ash.
The company, which currently faces several civil lawsuits filed by green groups, released a statement in response to the sentencing Thursday, saying it would use “the Dan River incident as an opportunity to set a new, industry-leading standard for the management of coal ash.”
Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for industrial power generation and contains concentrated amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, as well as aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine and varying amounts of radioactive uranium, thorium and potassium.
The toxins have been linked to cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children and behavioural problems, according to waste assessments done by the EPA.