Duke Energy Corporation pleaded guilty Thursday to environmental crimes over a North Carolina power plant's coal ash spill into a river and management of coal ash basins in the state, U.S. prosecutors said.
Duke, the country’s largest energy company, pleaded guilty to nine violations of the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay $102 million in fines, including $68 million in criminal fines and $34 million that will go toward environmental projects and land conservation.
The plea entered in federal court in Greenville, North Carolina was expected as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice announced in February.
“Duke Energy's crimes reflect a breach of the public trust and a lack of stewardship for the natural resources belonging to all of the citizens of North Carolina,” Thomas G. Walker, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said in a statement. “The massive release at the Dan River coal ash basin revealed criminal misconduct throughout the state — conduct that will no longer be tolerated under the judgment imposed by the court today.”
The company admitted to failures at five of its power plants over several decades that allowed coal ash to enter waterways, including documented problems with the 48-inch pipe that would eventually cause the spill into the Dan River in February 2014.
The stormwater pipe beneath a coal ash pond at Duke's retired power plant in Eden ruptured, releasing up to 27 million gallons of wastewater and as many as 39,000 tons of coal combustion residue into the river that supplies drinking water to two towns in neighboring Virginia.
Duke “failed to take reasonable steps to minimize or prevent discharge of coal ash to the Dan River that would adversely affect the environment," according to a joint statement filed by the company and prosecutors in federal court.
Duke has separately agreed to close and clean up coal ash sites at 14 coal plants in North Carolina, though their methods have been disputed.
"Our highest priority is to operate our system as safely as possible for the customers and communities we serve," Duke said in a statement.
Al Jazeera and Reuters