Federal environmental officials announced that they have reached a deal with Duke Energy to clean up its mess from a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River that coated 70 miles of the waterway in North Carolina and Virginia with toxic gray sludge.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced it had finalized an enforceable agreement with the nation's largest electricity company over the Feb. 2 spill that was triggered when a pipe collapsed at Duke's defunct coal plant along the Dan River.
The EPA will oversee the cleanup in consultation with federal wildlife officials under provisions in the Superfund law. Duke will reimburse the federal government for its oversight costs, including those incurred in the emergency response to the spill.
"EPA will work with Duke Energy to ensure that cleanup at the site, and affected areas, is comprehensive based on sound scientific and ecological principles, complies with all federal and state environmental standards and moves as quickly as possible," said Heather McTeer Toney, the EPA's regional administrator based in Atlanta.
The agreement makes no mention of any fines imposed against Duke, which has its headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. The EPA did not respond to questions about whether any civil penalties could still be forthcoming.
Duke called the agreement "a significant milestone" in the company's "ongoing efforts to restore and monitor the Dan River and surrounding environment."
"Duke Energy is fully committed to the river's long-term health and well-being. River water quality has returned to normal and drinking water has remained safe," spokesman Dave Scanzoni said Thursday in an email.
Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Duke has tried to downplay the effects of the spill, acting as if "it was no big deal." But he said the EPA doesn't enter into a Superfund agreement "when there is nothing to be concerned about."
Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites.
"The Superfund statute isn't involved unless it's something serious," said Holleman. "Superfund isn't invoked when someone just spills sand and dirt into the river. The very fact that the EPA is using the Superfund statute underscores the serious nature of what happened."
Recent testing of water samples from the river show that the level of contamination quickly decreased after the spill as the ash and the toxic heavy metals it contains sank to the bottom. Duke has already begun vacuuming out three large deposits of ash found in the river, including a pocket that collected at the bottom of a dam in Danville, Virginia.
The byproduct left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity, the ash contains numerous toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium, chromium, thallium, mercury and lead. Wildlife officials will be collecting tissue samples from fish in the Dan to monitor whether the contamination works its way up the food chain. Public health officials in both states have advised residents not to eat fish caught downstream of the spill site.
Thursday’s agreement does not appear to resolve a criminal investigation into the spill and the company's close relationships with North Carolina politicians and regulators. Federal prosecutors issued at least 23 grand jury subpoenas after the spill to Duke executives and state officials.
North Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources has been criticized for years for lax penalties on Duke and a perceived revolving door between people who work for the company and people who work for North Carolina’s regulators.
Also this week, several Duke Energy shareholders announced that they were suing the company over its handling of coal ash. The suit claims that the leaders of Duke breached their fiduciary duty by improperly managing their coal ash.
Al Jazeera and wire services