RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's top utilities regulator has been subpoenaed as part of the broadening criminal investigation triggered by last month's massive coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission on Wednesday released a copy of the subpoena ordering board chairman Edward S. Finley to testify before a federal grand jury later this month.
The summons issued by the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh is dated Feb. 18 and requires Finley to also provide reams of documents related to the state commission's oversight of Duke Energy coal ash dumps like the one that ruptured. Finely is a Raleigh utilities lawyer first appointed to the commission in 2007.
The newly disclosed subpoena is at least the 23rd issued in the wake of the Feb. 2 spill. North Carolina's environmental agency received 20. Duke Energy confirms receiving two.
The first batch of subpoenas was issued Feb. 10, the day after an AP story raised questions about whether North Carolina regulators had helped shield Duke from a coalition of environmental groups that wanted to sue under the U.S. Clean Water Act to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution.
Their efforts were stymied by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which used its authority under the federal act to intervene. The state quickly proposed what environmentalists derided as a "sweetheart deal" where the $50 billion company would have paid just $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater leeching from two of its plants with no requirement that it stop the pollution.
That proposed settlement was put on hold indefinitely after last month's spill.
Also on Wednesday, a federal judge postponed a hearing on a lawsuit on whether Duke violated the act by allowing its coal ash pits to pollute the Catawba River, the main source of drinking water for North Carolina's largest city.
U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn was supposed to decide this week whether the lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center could move forward. But the judge agreed to give Duke time to file a new motion.
Duke argues the lawsuit should be dismissed because state regulators are taking enforcement action against the company.
Weiss reported from Charlotte. Follow Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck