Duke Energy to Customers: You Pay for Coal Ash Mess

Energy company may push cost of cleanup for its 14 coal ash sites onto North Carolina ratepayers

Duke Energy's North Carolina customers should pay for the cleanup of its toxic coal ash ponds across the state.

That's what the company's CEO, Lynn Good, said on Friday. Speaking to The Charlotte Observer after receiving the BusinessWoman of the Year award at Queens University of Charlotte, Good said that though the decision ultimately rests with a state regulatory board, she believes that removing the toxic sludge from its 14 sites around the state is "ultimately a part of our cost structure."

"Does Duke expect customers [...] to pay for the closure of the ash ponds and the removal of the ash if you do that?" The Charlotte Observer asked Good.

"We've taken responsibility for the spill and the cleanup of Dan River," Good responded. "Ash pond closure has been a plan for a very long time. We've had plans to close ash ponds, and because that ash was created over decades from generation of electricity we do believe that ash pond disposal costs are ultimately a part of our cost structure."

Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan confirmed later on Friday the message that the company would try to push those costs onto ratepayers.

Last week, a state judge ruled that Duke had to take immediate action to stop sources of groundwater contamination from the sites. Gov. Pat McCrory--who worked for Duke for almost three decades--issued the energy company a March 15 deadline to submit to the state its plan for the coal ash storing sites.

The price tag for hauling out all this waste could be $1 billion.

"We can't comment or speculate as to what would be recoverable, and not be, until we see the specifics of a plan and what is required by state regulators," said Christopher Ayers, executive director of the Utilities Commission's Public Staff.

David Robinson, a spokesperson with the Central Piedmont Group of the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club, told Common Dreams that Good's comments may or may not represent her initial negotiating position to the Commission.

What has been clear for years, though, Robinson said, is that Duke makes decisions "that will enhance returns to its stockholders over and above the damage it has done to the environment and the people of North Carolina." This track record made environmental groups in the area, including the Sierra Club, "bug Duke and the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources for years."

Yet Duke and the DENR have resisted doing anything about the coal ash problem for years, Robinson said.

Duke's business model--one that relies on dirty, highly centralized energy, is "back in the dark ages," he said. But it's profitable, and with a board of directors representing the likes of construction companies and nuclear companies who profit from this model, of course Duke will resist moving towards decentralized, renewable energy, Robinson said.

Environmental advocates have also said that Duke's February disaster when up to 35,000 tons of coal ash spewed into the Dan River highlights the need for better federal coal ash regulations for the many "ticking time bombs" across the nation. The disaster has also highlighted the close ties between industry and the North Carolina government.

The New York Timesreported:

Current and former state regulators said the [Department of Environment and Natural Resources], once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.

The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based. And it has become another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor's mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called "job-killing" environmental regulations, which have received less notice.

Critics say the accident, the third-largest coal ash spill on record, is inextricably linked to the state's new environmental politics and reflects an enforcement agency led by a secretary who suggested that oil was a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull's-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency's headquarters.

In 2013, Duke Energy made $2.7 billion in profits, while a recent study showed that it was among 26 Fortune 500 companies that paid no federal corporate taxes over the past five years.

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