Beneath PR spin, Duke Energy pleads guilty to environmental crimes

One year ago, about 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy power plant, fouling the Dan River in Danville, Va.
One year ago, about 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy power plant, fouling the Dan River in Danville, Va.
Published Feb. 25, 2015

There's public reality. And then Duke Energy reality.

The country's biggest power company, the parent of Duke Energy Florida, invoked a classic PR move last week by issuing a news release at 4:20 p.m. on a Friday, shortly before the end of the workweek.

That timing often signals something bad has happened that the culprit hopes will get ignored in the weekend crush.

Duke's release said it has reached a "proposed agreement with the U.S. government" that, if approved, would "close a federal investigation" of three Duke subsidiaries related to the Dan River coal ash spill (near the North Carolina-Virginia border) and ash basin operations at other North Carolina coal plants.

One year ago, about 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a Duke Energy power plant site, fouling the Dan River with sludge for 70 miles.

"We are accountable for what happened at Dan River and have learned from this event," Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good stated in the company's Friday release. "We are setting a new standard for coal ash management and implementing smart, sustainable solutions for all of our ash basins. Our highest priorities are safe operations and the well-being of the people and communities we serve."

After reading Duke's spin, I felt like I should send flowers to the company for going the extra mile in hard times.

But let's skip the Kool-Aid and look at what Duke chose not to acknowledge.

Duke's is not pursuing a "proposed agreement" but pleading guilty to multiple environmental crimes — nine violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

"This is not some civil settlement," says Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is pressing Duke to clean up its coal ash sites.

"This is an extremely wealthy Duke Energy, founded and headquartered in North Carolina, being charged with crimes in its home state. Under a plea agreement, Duke will be on criminal probation," he says. "That is unusual."

Duke's price tag for its wrongdoings? About $102 million, mostly fines set by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Duke anticipates the deal will end a federal grand jury investigation. But Holleman says that fine will not allow Duke to escape a much larger price tag of cleaning up other coal ash sites across the state. It also won't protect Duke from additional state, local and individual civil lawsuits and investigations yet to play out.

Holleman praised the feds for pursuing the only serious investigation of Duke. He scoffed at an earlier ploy by North Carolina officials to fine Duke just $99,000 and require no cleanup.

As Floridians learned the hard way, Duke is a powerful monopoly. Just ask Holleman.

"They are very rich. They have big bureaucracies," he says. "They spend lots of money on political contributions and the favorite charities of important people.

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