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A 2010 study by George Washington University Law School professor Robert L. Glicksman looked at enforcement actions in the state of Maryland under the Clean Water Act. He found that North Carolina is not the only state where regulators moved within the 60 day period to negotiate settlements favorable to the utilities.

“In several instances, states have ‘over-filed’ enforcement actions within this time frame in state court,” Glicksman’s study found. “These cases are often pursued at the request of the violator, who solicits state enforcement to shield itself from a citizen suit.”

In a written statement, Duke said it is committed to closing the ash basins at “many” of its 14 coal plants across North Carolina that are no longer being used, including the Dan River facility. The company said it is transitioning to a more environmentally sound method for disposing of coal waste.

While it is studying the issue, however, Duke said it has no timetable for removing the waste from its leaky unlined ponds. One option, the company said, would be to cover the dumps with giant tarps to block rainwater.

“We will rely on science to close ash basins in a way that protects groundwater long-term and is prudent for customers and plant neighbors,” the company said. “Closing ash basins provides the ultimate resolution to these issues, and site-specific engineering studies to determine the most appropriate closure method for each are well under way.”

A state judge in Charlotte must still approve the state’s agreement with Duke before it can be finalized. The environmental groups are pushing to scuttle the deal. They say last week’s disaster shows what is at stake if the company is not forced to move its toxic dumps away from rivers and lakes.

“There is nobody in the state of North Carolina who is better positioned to get Duke Energy to empty out these polluting coal ash lagoons and clean up their pollution at Riverbend and all these other sites than Gov. McCrory,” Holleman said. “The governor is responsible for what DENR does and there is nobody who could take action better than him.”

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Weiss reported from Charlotte.

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Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck