The news was announced on April Fools Day, but it was no joke! DEQ (TheNC Dept. of Environmental Quality), backed by strong science, stood with coal ash communities in their decision to order Duke Energy to excavate coal ash from every remaining site in the state and move it into lined landfills. Duke Energy wasted no time in rebuking DEQ, speaking scathingly about the ordered clean-up, and leveraging its power to safeguard its own interests, but NC residents, businesses, and organizations, will not be standing down.
On April 2, Senate Bill 559 backed by Duke Energy was introduced in the NC legislature. Fronted as a storm recovery bill, it would allow the utility to request multi-year rate increases up to five years ahead of time for long-term projects (i.e. coal ash cleanup) and bypass the hurdle of annual rate cases with the NC Utilities Commission. A reportby a state social justice advocacy group revealed many of the bill’s sponsors had received a surge of campaign donations from Duke in 2018. The bill soared through the NC Senate and passed its first reading in the House of Representatives in early May. In response to Duke’s rate bill, NC businesses including Google and Walmart, have come out against it, concerned that it could “lead to unchecked electricity rate increases.” Additionally, NC Attorney General, Josh Stein, filed an appeal to overturn a previous decision to allow Duke to collect recovery costs from customers for coal ash cleanup. The resistance against the utility’s potential rate increase is mounting as news outlets publish letters from concerned residents and advocates, demanding that Duke and its shareholders pay to clean up their own mess.
Meanwhile, in mid-April Duke Energy took a more direct approach to challenging the DEQ decision by filing an appeal. In it, they challenge DEQ’s authority to order full excavation and claimed the department was not looking out for ratepayers. Duke brandished a new, $10 billion estimate for coal ash cleanup by the 2029 deadline (twice the previous estimate in their closure proposals) and cited concerns for their customers about rate increases. They claimed that DEQ stepped over the line by choosing a closure method for all sites based on the idea that excavation is “more protective” rather than just “protective” enough. But with unlined coal ash pits sitting below the groundwater table and historic rainfall events on the rise, simply removing excess water from the ash and capping it was no guarantee contaminants wouldn’t find their way into drinking water supplies. Governor Cooper and Secretary Regan, as well as some of Duke Energy’s own shareholders, are standing by DEQ’s decision to protect communities.
Duke spokespeople are responding heatedly to all negative press to reduce the PR damage, but their actions clearly speak louder than words. As they repeat their script about ratepayer concerns, they await approval on a bill that would give them greater power to increase rates. In South Carolina, ratepayers came out against a massive rate increase for coal ash cleanup and succeeded in greatly reducing the amount the utility could collect. Duke responded by threatening to pull future investments in customer services in the state. NC coal ash impacted communities and advocates understand what’s at stake and will not be intimidated by such tactics. We are watching and listening, and we won’t be backing down. We will continue to stand together against coal ash injustice.