Duke Energy’s executives want you to know they’re 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. They’re 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.
They’re sorry for the little animals — the clams, mussels and crustaceans — that form the base of the river’s ecosystem and are suffocating in a river of sludge. They’re sorry for the big ones — the birds, fish and turtles – that eat those little things. And most of all they’re 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 who’s ever lived near a river knows, for much more than that.)
They’re 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, Duke’s 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 lawmaker’s question about who will pay. “We’re focused on stopping the discharge and initiating the remediation of the river. But when costs do come into play, when we’ve had a chance to determine what those costs are, it’s 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 won’t 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 won’t surprise many Duke customers. This is standard operating procedure for the country’s 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 weren’t 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. It’s not like they can’t 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 everyone’s minds, the company’s CEO, Lynn Good, told The Charlotte Observer yesterday that no, Duke would pay for it all!
But given Duke’s history of dishonesty around this spill — and, quite frankly, most everything else — Ms. Good hasn’t 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 McCrory’s 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 Duke’s mess.
But don’t worry. Duke’s sorry.