By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - State regulators in North Carolina on Friday said Duke Energy Corp violated environmental laws and could face quotidian fines after a massive spill of toxic coal ash this month contaminated water and wildlife in the Dan River.
The state's Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), which has been criticized by green groups and faces a federal government criminal probe over its handling of the decommissioned Eden plant's spill, issued two notices of wastewater and stormwater violations.
"These are violations of state and federal law, and we are holding the utility accountable," said DENR Secretary John Skvarla.
The total amount of fines had not been determined, though Duke could face civil fines of up to $25,000 per day, the DENR said.
At least 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash were released into the Dan River when a pipe broke under the 27-acre (11-hectare) ash pond in a spill discovered on February 2. State officials found a second leak of arsenic-laced discharge from another pipe during their investigation.
The coal-fired plant was built in the 1940s and retired in 2012. The ash pond stores the waste the plant produced. The discharge led to coal combustion waste coating the river bottom as far as 70 miles downstream.
Both leaks have been plugged, according to Duke and the state regulator. Two towns in neighboring Virginia, Danville and South Boston, get their drinking water from the river.
The DENR also said this week it planned to modify permitting that has allowed Duke to discharge certain amounts of wastewater and force the utility to move thousands of tons of coal ash from storage ponds to a lined landfill.
Duke, the largest electric power provider in the United States, could not immediately be reached for comment. It has said drinking water is safe and it continues to test Dan River water.
"We will do the right thing for the river and surrounding communities," Paul Newton, president of Duke Energy North Carolina, said in a statement on the utility's website. "We are accountable."
On Friday, the DENR said its investigation found Duke violated water quality laws, rules, and lacked proper water-discharge permitting in the massive spill and in its management of the coal ash pond and its flows into the Dan River.
The DENR also said Duke neither applied for, nor was issued, a so-called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for discharging stormwater from a steam electric power generating facility into state waters.
Environmental groups say the coal ash, a powdery byproduct of power plants containing heavy metals that can cause cancer and nervous system damage, is stored in antiquated or unlined pits and risks seeping into groundwater and nearby rivers.
U.S. prosecutors have opened a criminal probe over the spill and have requested inspection records and copies of correspondence between the DENR and Duke Energy.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, editing by David Evans)