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Danville, VA -- In February, 40,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River.

That's 80 million pounds of pollution!

And now we have 70 miles of riverbed coated with what activists are calling "toxic" chemicals.

In our backyard!

Wouldn't you think Duke Energy would be paying some huge fine?

What about the fact coal ash ponds have been leaking for years?

Again, no fine.

And we've found evidence the system designed to prevent this disaster was broken long before the pipe broke.

"Let the backlash from Progress Energy begin," one regulator writes.

And we found email tells quite a story.

State regulators writing about the fighting over coal ash from the company that is now Duke Energy.

"Well the bomb has dropped and she wanted me to come down there and (ahem) and take a look at the plant," says another email from an employee of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

2 Wants to Know reviewed hundreds of pages of emails that reveal regulators are quite familiar with Duke fighting new rules.

Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center said, "What we have is a very powerful,well-connected organization that works closely with the regulators, not being required to obey the law."

Holleman is one of the SELC's lawyers who are trying to force Duke Energy to clean up every one of its 32 coal ash ponds.

And he believes state regulators at DENR are part of the problem.

"Every law enforcement agency I know about works with the victim and the law abiding citizen,"said Holleman.

"Instead they worked with the law breaker and the polluter to come up with a solution favorable to it."

Holleman's referring to a proposed deal DENR struck with Duke over two separate coal ash leaks years ago.

The penalty?

Just $99,000 and no demand for Duke to clean up the pollution. DENR later withdrew the deal, then came back and asked a judge to consider it again.

So why didn't the state just force Duke to clean up the coal ash ponds?

At a recent news conference DENR Secretary John Skvarla said, "We're still assessing the situation. I mean, if we really want to do that, I guess we could do that."

"We're talking 14 facilities and 32 coal ash ponds. I can assure, it's not that simple,"said Skvarla.

State regulators admit they've known for five years that every single one of Duke's 14 plants have been polluting ground water at coal ash ponds.

But DENR only threatened fines of $25,000 a day.

Recently, a judge ruled the state has the authority to demand Duke clean up the coal ash.

"One of the first things we teach our kids is if you make a mess you've gotta clean it up,"Holleman said.

Ironically, the state is fighting that ruling.

DENR and Duke are arguing the state does not have power to demand clean up.

And again, emails indicate the relationship between DENR and the company that is now Duke Energy is complicated.

One regulator says they understand Duke's concerns about the "amount, frequency and increased parameters" of pollution monitoring and they're "open to hearing other thoughts."

"I guess Duke is not going to be happy with our permits," says another regulator in an email.

A utility rep writes they are "concerned about monthly sampling."

Is this a negotiation of regulations?

If so, one attorney says it's unacceptable. And he's fighting for Duke and DENR to clean up their act.

Holleman said, "There are 14 communities in North Carolina facing the risk of another Dan River.

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good was not made available for our story.

But she did say this about Duke's approach to protecting the environment.

"Of course we must protect the environment. And, of course, we must promote safe, reliable and cost-effective electricity. We can't do one; we have to do both," said Good.

We also asked a Duke spokesperson about the company's influence on regulation.

Thomas Williams with Duke Energy said, "I would say that we provide input in policy to protect our customers' rates which are among the lowest in the country and to protect our shareholders."

To see our entire interview with Rep. Pricey Harrison on Duke Energy's influence in Raleigh, click the video below.

Rep. Pricey Harrison talks about how Duke Energy campaign donations influence regulation.

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READ:Biologist Says Coal Ash Can Cause Fish Deformities

READ:Coal Ash: What It Is & What You Need To Know

READ: Coal Ash Full Coverage

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