Duke Energy will try to make ratepayers pay to clean up coal ash disaster

by David Pomerantz

February 19, 2014

People in canoes maneuver in the Dan River where a coal ash spill discolored the river in Eden. Duke Energy said that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released through a broken stormwater pipe from a 27-acre unlined pond at the Dan River Steam Station which closed in 2012.

© Jason Miczek / Greenpeace

Duke Energys executives want you to know theyre sorry for the tens of thousands of tons of coal ash they spilled into the Dan River in the third-largest disaster of its kind in US history. Theyre sorry for the water that officials now admit is tainted with arsenic and is unsafe even to touch, no less for swimming, boating or fishing.

Theyre sorry for the little animals the clams, mussels and crustaceans that form the base of the rivers ecosystem and are suffocating in a river of sludge. Theyre sorry for the big ones the birds, fish and turtles – that eat those little things. And most of all theyre sorry to the people living near the Dan who depend on all of it, directly or indirectly, for much of their local economy (and, as anyone whos ever lived near a river knows, for much more than that.)

Theyre just not sorry enough to pay to clean it up.

After all, why would Duke ask its executives or investors to pay to clean the mess they created when they can do what they always do when they screw something up: get their customers to foot the bill.

According to the Associated Press, George Everett, Dukes director of environmental and legislative affairs, told state legislators on Monday:

that the company is sorry for the spill and will be accountable. Any costs incurred because of the cleanup will likely be passed on to ratepayers, not shareholders, he said.

We have paid absolutely no attention to costs, to this point, Everett said, responding to a lawmakers question about who will pay. Were focused on stopping the discharge and initiating the remediation of the river. But when costs do come into play, when weve had a chance to determine what those costs are, its usually our customers who pay our costs of operation.

It takes audacity to say with one breath we will be accountable and also but we wont pay for it.

If an intruder kicked in your front door, vandalized your home, got caught, and sent you the bill to repair the damages, would Everett call that “acountability” as well?

Sadly, hypocrisy wont surprise many Duke customers. This is standard operating procedure for the countrys largest utility.

When Duke decided to shut a nuclear reactor in Florida that it broke during a botched repair job, and when it scuttled plans to build another that had run billions of dollars over budget, it was accountable for those mistakes too it charged its Florida customers over $3 billion to pay for it all.

As if all of this werent hard enough to swallow, Duke bragged to its investors yesterday about how its profits jumped 58 % in the last quarter of 2013, thanks to rate hikes to its customers in multiple states. Its not like they cant afford to follow the basic lesson we all learned in kindergarten and clean up their own mess.

Perhaps wary of further political backlash if Duke announced it intended to charge ratepayers for the cleanup with the spill still so fresh in everyones minds, the companys CEO, Lynn Good, told The Charlotte Observer yesterday that no, Duke would pay for it all!

But given Dukes history of dishonesty around this spill and, quite frankly, most everything else Ms. Good hasnt earned the benefit of the doubt. More likely, Duke is trying to appease the public with some vague promises of accountability, wait until the scandal passes, then ask regulators at the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to let Duke charge customers for its mess once national media interest has cooled and fewer people are paying attention.

The worst part? Duke will probably get away with it. The NCUC is appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, former Duke employee of 28 years. The other McCrorys Administration agency charged with regulating Duke, the Department of Natural Resources (DENR), helped Duke sweep its coal ash problem under the rug. That agency is now under federal investigation.

If the NCUC is as beholden to Duke as DENR was, we can expect that they will let the company get whatever it wants. And that means a year or two from now, North Carolinians will be emptying out their pockets to pay for Dukes mess.

But dont worry. Dukes sorry.

David Pomerantz

By David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is a former Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, based in San Francisco. He helps lead Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100% renewable energy.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.