Feds: Duke Energy Beckjord makes plea deal in Ohio River diesel fuel spill of 2014

CINCINNATI -- Duke Energy, owner of the W.C. Beckjord power plant, made a plea deal in the 2014 Ohio River diesel oil spill, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Duke was charged with negligent discharge of oil, which is a violation of the Clean Water Act.

In August 2014, 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the Ohio River, leaving a sheen on the water for 15 miles and threatening drinking water throughout the Tri-State.

PHOTOS: Duke plant leaks fuel oil into Ohio River

Government officials say the spill was preventable: A valve that was supposed to prevent the spill hadn't been checked, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman said. It was rusted open.

Under the deal, a Duke spokeswoman said the company would plead guilty to one misdemeanor violation, be fined $1 million and give $100,000 to the Foundation for Ohio River Education. Duke has already reimbursed government and private organizations about $950,000 for costs associated with the spill, Duke spokeswoman Sally Thelen said. 

"What I can tell you is we've learned a lot just by looking back at that day and things that we can improve," Thelen said. "We've been working on our processes, our procedures, our emergency plan."

Duke released this statement Tuesday morning:

This agreement allows our company to put this incident behind us and move forward.

We immediately apologized for the oil spill at our Beckjord facility in Ohio, took responsibility for the accident and responded quickly in coordination with dozens of state and federal agencies to ensure that people and the environment remained safe and well protected.

We have used the accident as an opportunity to learn and improve. For example, over the past two years, we have worked hard to further strengthen our processes, training and emergency plans at our facilities. 

According to documents uncovered by the I-Team two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had concerns before the spill of other foreign substances from the plant that were ending up in the river -- and possibly in the region’s supply of drinking water.

According to a state permit, Duke's Beckjord Station was allowed to release thousands of pounds of oil and grease directly into the river every day, and a water supply intake is downstream from the plant. Other contaminants allowed out of these pipes included small levels of mercury and arsenic, the permit states.

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When renewing the permit in 2013, the state of Ohio called for "new monitoring for arsenic, barium and zinc... based on the reasonable potential to exceed water quality standards" at the plant.

Since the 1960s "fly ash, boiler slag and other waste water" has been dumped into coal ash ponds next to the plant and river, where "solids settle to the bottom and oil and grease is skimmed off as the wastewater leaves the ponds," according to state documents.

The W.C. Beckjord Station, a closed Duke Energy power plant located 20 miles east of Cincinnati, contains more than 10 billion pounds of toxins that are packed into ponds along the banks of the Ohio River. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

An ash pond is an engineered structure for the disposal of power plant byproducts.

The EPA and Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin completed a 200-page safety assessment of the plant’s coal ash ponds in 2010, describing their condition as "poor." Inspectors concluded "remedial action is necessary" because "a sudden failure of the structure would result in... disruption of a public water treatment facility, release of health hazardous industrial or commercial waste."

Duke had fixed the problems outlined in that report by the time of the spill, spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

In the late 1980s, pollution from one of the ponds forced Clermont County to shut down a public drinking well that served thousands of area residents. In North Carolina, where Duke Energy is headquartered, the company has faced numerous lawsuits and fines from leaking coal ash ponds there.

Last week, the utility said it is considering Clermont’s request to remove some of the coal ash.

MORE: Duke promises 'safe solution' for coal ash ponds

“As we develop our closure and decommissioning plans, we continue to comply with state and federal laws and regulations,” Duke Energy spokesman Warren Walker said. “Any closure plan we decide on has to be approved by the (Ohio) EPA, and you can rest assure it will be a safe solution for this community and environment.”

Walker said the company expects to have a more comprehensive plan to share in the first half of 2017. Any plant it presents will require approval from Ohio EPA.

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