Danville, VA - More information is coming out about the lawsuit between Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources also called DENR.
Some say they are working together in the interest of Duke, and not the citizens of North Carolina. One environmental group says the company could have prevented the major coal ash leak into the Dan River.
More than a year before the coal ash spill happened at the Dan River plant, Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Frank Holleman says he saw a disaster in the making.
"I thought this is a terrible disgrace and unfortunately we told you so," said Holleman.
Duke owns 14 coal ash ponds in North Carolina, all next to major waterways, all unlined. Holleman started looking at Duke Energy's coal ash pollution in 2012. That's when he says he found major legal violations, which could threaten the water system.
"It was apparent to us as we started looking at the records that in fact they were violating state and federal clean water laws," said Holleman.
In 2013, on behalf of grassroots community groups, Holleman contacted Duke and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources about the issue. Clean water laws give the state 60 days to file a suit or citizens can. DENR did on day 59.
"If you have a state agency that is very close with the polluter, they can...prevent local citizens groups from enforcing the law vigorously," said Holleman.
In the lawsuit, DENR went on record about the violations.
"They state under oath that Duke Energy was violating the federal clean water act and the state groundwater laws in North Carolina at the Dan River site," said Holleman.
In two of the three cases, the Asheville and Charlotte locations, DENR and Duke settled privately.
"On their own without including the public in the negotiations came together with a sweetheart settlement that does not require clean up," said Holleman.
The third case, the 12 remaining ash ponds, including the Dan River site, is still going through the courts. Holleman says this major ash spill could have been prevented.
"DENR knew Duke was violating the law and Duke knew and they did nothing in the intervening six months before the spill," said Holleman.
Holleman says they've been trying to participate in the lawsuits, but have hit roadblocks.
"Duke has fought us every inch of the way to keep us out. The state by law cannot oppose us participating but they have refused to agree to us participating," said Holleman.
Still, Holleman worries this catastrophe could happen again while they're waiting.
"Every day that goes by 14 communities and people downstream of them in North Carolina are at risk," said Holleman.
Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation, issuing more than 20 subpoenas to DENR and Duke seeking documents related to the coal ash spill.
Duke Energy declined an interview with ABC 13 and have not made a commitment as to when they will close the ash ponds, but said closing them is a high priority.
As of Monday afternoon, DENR has not returned our calls.
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