Last year, citizen groups attempted to sue Duke Energy over groundwater pollution from its coal ash ponds. North Carolina's environmental regulators intervened, using its authority to negotiate an agreement in which the $50 billion company would pay a $99,100 fine, and which left it under no obligation to actually clean up the pollution.
And before the intervention, newly released emails reveal, the regulators consulted with Duke Energy to coordinate the deal. The AP reports on what happened after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed notice of its intent to sue last January:
Within days, the emails show a Duke lobbyist contacted the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to set up a meeting. The emails suggest the company and regulators were in frequent contact, with a lawyer for Duke even advising the state on legal strategy at one point.
At the time, lawyers for the environmental law center were worried that Duke and state regulators would work out a deal without any input from the citizens groups. They told the state that the groups couldn’t legally be blocked from participating.
But in an April 30, 2013 email, Duke lawyer Charles Case tried to find a case law that could be used by the state’s lawyers to convince a judge otherwise.
The effort to block the groups from being heard was ultimately unsuccessful. Yet environmentalists allege that the deal that was ultimately brokered allowed Duke to get away with a much easier deal than it would have had they been able to move forward in federal court.
“They tried to keep us from being full parties in the case,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the law center. “Duke is the lawbreaker. DENR is the law enforcement agency. They are supposed to be protecting the people. Instead, they are working with the lawbreaker to find a way to limit the participation of the citizens groups in the law enforcement proceedings in the way that will benefit the lawbreaker. It’s astonishing.”
This all occurred before last month's coal ash spill, an environmental disaster that turned 70 miles of North Carolina's Dan River to sludge and contaminated the water with arsenic, lead and other dangerous chemicals.
On Friday, Duke Energy said it would take two years to clean up the spill site.