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AP reported Sunday 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 evidence conservationists gathered 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.

Clean water advocates have long complained that state regulators are too cozy with the polluters they regulate. But they say the relationship appears to have grown closer since McCrory’s inauguration in January 2013.

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory’s campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

On a state ethics form, McCrory indicated that his investment portfolio includes holdings of Duke stock valued in excess of $10,000, though he is not obligated to disclose the specific amount.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, worried that Monday’s about-face might be just another tactic by the state to help Duke avoid paying for the harm it has done to the North Carolina’s rivers and lakes.

“They are reacting to the public heat,” Holleman said. “The spill at Dan River has shown that the entire path they have taken - not enforcing the law effectively as to coal ash - is a political embarrassment and a disaster for clean water in North Carolina. They are scrambling to figure out what to do without losing face.”

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Associated Press national writer Allen G. Breed contributed from the Dan River in Eden. Weiss reported from Greenville, S.C.

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Follow Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck