By Associated Press - Friday, March 4, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Duke Energy is violating state pollution laws because its coal ash pits are polluting nearby waterways, North Carolina environmental regulators said Friday. Fines are being considered.

The state Division of Water Resources sent letters to the country’s largest electric company accusing Duke Energy of violating state law by allowing wastewater to leak from coal ash basins at 12 of the company’s 14 current or former coal-burning power plants.

Wastewater is what leaks from coal ash ponds into nearby water bodies. Coal ash is the residue left after decades of burning coal to generate power. It contains toxic materials like arsenic and chromium.

Duke Energy, which has 30 days to respond officially to regulators, said in a statement Friday “there is nothing new here” and work to shut down the ponds is underway.

“The best way to reduce or eliminate seeps altogether is to safely remove the water from ash basins and close them in ways that protect people and the environment,” the statement read. “That’s exactly what Duke Energy is doing right now.”

State regulators did not issue violation notices for two closed coal-ash plants - Riverbend near Mount Holly and Sutton near Wilmington. The Sutton plant’s basins don’t seep and state regulators issued a permit for seeps at Riverbend, state spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco wrote in an email.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman said his group has been telling Gov. Pat McCrory’s environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, about the illegal discharges for three years.

“It has taken DEQ three years to take this proposed action. But still, at many of these sites, DEQ is only proposing to issue fines,” Holleman wrote in an email. “Proposed fines will not do these communities or their rivers one bit of good.”

The utility pointed to comments made by department Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder to a state legislative committee in January that every earthen impoundment - like an ash basin - has seeps. Reeder told lawmakers the leakages present a very low risk to dirtying surface waters beyond what regulatory standards allow.

DEQ is holding hearings this month to get public input on proposed classifications for all 32 coal-ash pits at 14 plants that will set their clean-up schedule. The agency has said only the basins at four plants the General Assembly already designated as high risk must be excavated and trucked away from waterways.

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