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Duke Energy is in hot water again over coal ash.   Earlier this month, local environmentalists noticed Duke was pumping down coal ash lagoons at a retired power plant.  That triggered an investigation that ended yesterday, when the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced that Duke had illegally pumped 61 million gallons of coal ash-tainted wastewater into the Cape Fear River.

DENR says it has notified downstream cities of the illegal discharge from the pumping into the Cape Fear River, but so far has not heard of any problems with water quality. The river provides drinking water for Sanford, Dunn, Fayetteville and other communities.

The 61 million gallons, pumped into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, is more than twice the size of the Feb. 2 Dan River spill, but it happened over several months instead of days, and it didn’t include the 39,000 tons of coal-ash sludge that accompanied the disaster in Rockingham County.

This latest saga began on March 10, when Waterkeeper Alliance happened to be flying a plane above the Cape Fear Steam Station in Chatham County, half an hour west of Raleigh.  The plant, inherited from what eventually became Progress Energy, operated for 89 years until its shutdown in 2012.  The next day, state inspectors came to inspect the plant as part of its in-depth inspection of all of the state's ash ponds, and found the pumps shut down.  Since last fall, Duke has lowered the levels of the ponds in order to perform maintenance on the vertical spillway pipes.  However, Duke workers bypassed the pipes and diverted the wastewater into a canal, which prevented the water from being treated.  According to Tom Reeder, director of the Division of Water Resources, this resulted in a level of pumping that "far exceeded what could be considered routine maintenance."  Now Duke is staring down the barrel of as many as $25,000 per day.

As if this wasn't enough trouble for Duke, DENR has also determined that Duke's pumping cracked an earthen dam in one of the ponds.  The dam is not in any danger of failure--yet.  No homes or roads are close to it either.  Duke is working on a short-term fix for the crack, and will have to develop a permanent one later.

DENR had reached a much-criticized settlement with Duke of two lawsuits related to Duke's coal ash stockpiles.  But these disclosures are apparently the last straw for DENR.  It now wants a judge to take those settlements off the table.

To put it mildly, what has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month for the nation's biggest utility may be about to get a lot worse.

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