Duke Energy will introduce a rate hike after agreeing to excavate the nearly 80 million tons of coal ash from unlined landfills to lined landfills. But now, communities are fighting for a different kind of environmental justice.
After a years-long clash over the clean-up between Duke Energy and North Carolina activists, the excavation to come will be the largest effort in United States history. The new question is who will pay for the historic clean-up.
Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, said consumers will not be safe from potential rate hikes to pay for this clean-up because of language in the agreement.
Before Duke Energy could enact a rate hike for consumers, the company must first get it approved through the Utilities Commission. Sanders said he thinks the settlement directs the Utilities Commission to allow the rate hike and that public outcry may not accomplish much.
“When the request is made, people can file notice with the Utilities Commission, but I don't know how much good that will make,” Sanders said. “I'm certain that several consumer interest groups will do so.”
David Hairston, a board member of the environmental group Appalachian Voice, is more optimistic about fighting the rate hike with his fellow activists.
“Part of the battle is that every time one of us gets in front of a microphone, we have a way to get the word out that we need our state to make sure that Duke Energy doesn’t get a rate hike to pay for something that has damaged our communities,” he said.
Hairston currently lives in Walnut Cove, a town outside of Winston-Salem in close proximity to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, one site where Duke Energy’s coal ash excavation is set to occur.
“I won’t be totally satisfied until I see the plan and make sure it is a complete plan and that they’re looking out for the workers that are going to be working to move it and make sure they’re doing it safely,” he said.
Hairston said he saw the Duke Energy settlement as a win for the activists and environment, but that he is now frustrated by the prospect of potentially having to clean up someone else’s mess.
“If you look at it, this is going to take a 10-year period,” Hairston said. “Duke is averaging billions of dollars of profit every year. If they have to pay the $8 million, what they claim it’ll cost to clean all of this stuff up, over a 10-year period, this will be only one percent of their profits every year. I don't think the elderly and the poor should be obligated to foot the bill for something that they’ve made profit [off of] for over 40 years.”
Duke Energy spokesperson Bill Norton said the company plans on asking the Utilities Commission for permission to include the cost of coal ash excavation in future customer rates.
Upon making the request, the Utilities Commission will hold hearings throughout the state where they will solicit community feedback on the rate hikes.
Norton said the company’s management of waste and safely closing the basins are within the interests of the consumer.
“The basins were the norm decades ago, now dry ash handling is the new norm, and we're making investments like that on behalf of customers to go from an older technology to a newer technology," Norton said. "That is generally considered an appropriate customer cost.”
Hairston said if Duke Energy has the money to afford the clean-ups, the company should not try to pass the buck to consumers.
“If Duke Energy wanted to do the right thing, this wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket for them,” Hairston said. “But the people here who are living check to check, we can’t afford to foot the bill for them.”
Public hearings on Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments’ closure plans will be held throughout February.
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