U.S. probes huge coal ash spill after state inaction alleged

AP

U.S. authorities have launched a criminal investigation into a massive coal ash spill into a North Carolina river, demanding that Duke Energy and state regulators hand over reams of documents related to the accident, which left a waterway polluted with toxic sludge.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issued grand jury subpoenas seeking records from Duke and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The subpoenas seek emails, memos and reports related to the Feb. 2 spill into the Dan River and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps.

“An official criminal investigation of a suspected felony is being conducted by an agency of the United States and a federal grand jury,” said the subpoena to the state, dated Monday and obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

The exact crime and precisely who is being targeted for potential prosecution is not spelled out in the document.

A Duke spokesman confirmed that the largest U.S. electricity provider had also received a subpoena.

Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said he could not comment on the subpoenas.

The spill at a Duke Energy plant in Eden spewed enough toxic sludge to fill 73 Olympic-sized pools, turning the river water a milky gray for kilometers.

It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

State health officials have advised people not to eat fish from the river and to avoid contact with the water.

Prosecutors ordered the state environmental agency’s chief lawyer to testify next month before a grand jury. Agency spokesman Drew Elliot said the state will fully cooperate with the federal investigation.

Duke Energy spokesman Thomas Williams said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation but said officials would cooperate with any investigation.

The subpoenas were issued the day after the AP reported that environmental groups have tried three times in the past year to sue under the Clean Water Act to force Duke to clear out leaky coal ash dumps.

The groups sued after North Carolina regulators failed to act on alleged evidence of groundwater contamination.

Each time, the state agency blocked the citizen lawsuits by intervening at the last minute to assert its own authority under the act to take enforcement action in state court.

After negotiating with the company, the state proposed settlements that environmentalists regarded as highly favorable to the company.

Duke, a company valued at $50 billion, would have paid fines of $99,111 for groundwater pollution leaching from two coal dumps like the one that ruptured last week. The settlement would have required Duke to study how to stop the contamination, but it included no requirement to clean up the dumps near Asheville and Charlotte.

Among the documents targeted by the federal subpoenas are the correspondence between Duke and the state environmental agency related to the proposed deal highlighted in the AP’s story.