CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Duke Energy was in a bind.
North Carolina regulators had for years allowed the nation's largest power company to pollute the ground near its plants without penalty. But in early 2013, a coalition of environmental groups sued to force Duke to clean up nearly three dozen leaky coal ash dumps spread across the state.
So last summer, Duke Energy turned to North Carolina lawmakers for help.
Documents and interviews collected by The Associated Press show how Duke's lobbyists prodded Republican legislators to tuck a 330-word provision in a regulatory reform bill running nearly 60 single-spaced pages. Though the bill never once mentions coal ash, the change allowed Duke to avoid any costly cleanup of contaminated groundwater leaching from its unlined dumps toward rivers, lakes and the drinking wells of nearby homeowners.
Passed overwhelmingly by the GOP-controlled legislature, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, a pro-business Republican who worked at Duke for 28 years.
"For decades, Democrats have stifled small businesses and job creators with undue bureaucratic burden and red tape," McCrory said at the time. "This common-sense legislation cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulations, and puts job creation first here in North Carolina."
Environmentalists saw the legislation, and its little-noticed provision benefiting Duke, differently.
"This sweeping change gutted North Carolina's groundwater law," recounts D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The level of coordination between Duke and North Carolina's lawmakers and regulators had long been of concern to environmentalists. But when a Duke dump ruptured on Feb. 2 — spewing enough coal ash to coat 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge — the issue took on new urgency.
Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the spill, issuing at least 23 grand jury subpoenas to Duke executives and state officials.