Customers shouldn’t pay for coal ash cleanup

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If you care about safe water for all, you should be celebrating the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to order Duke Energy to excavate coal ash from its power plant sites in the state. It was the right call for communities that for too long have been vulnerable to the environmental impact and health threat of coal ash contamination.

But now comes the harder question: Who should pay for it?

Monday’s order, if not successfully appealed by Duke, means that the utility will have to drain all 31 of its N.C. ash ponds and excavate millions of pounds of coal ash, the Observer’s Bruce Henderson reports. Duke had proposed a less expensive option of draining and capping the ash ponds or taking a hybrid approach of removing some ash and using smaller caps. The company warns that a full excavation of the ponds will cost billions more, and it will want customers to pay the bill.

That call will be made by the seven-member N.C. Utilities Commission, which decides when and how much Duke can raise its rates. One bad sign for your electricity bill: Last year, the commission agreed with Duke that customers should pay a $546 million tab to close coal ash sites around the state. The commission did fine Duke $70 million for mismanaging coal ash, which dropped the total Duke could recoup from customers to $476 million. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has vowed to appeal the commission’s $546 million ruling.

Duke argued then, as it surely will argue again, that it followed industry standards in managing its coal ash ponds, and that customers should share the responsibility of Duke complying with state regulations that govern its operations. There didn’t seem to be much sharing going on last year, however, as the Utilities Commission granted Duke practically all of its request, despite staff estimating that the utility already was saving $210 million per year thanks to 2017 tax cuts from Congress and President Donald Trump.

The decision also didn’t reflect that Duke knew its handling of coal ash created a potential hazard for years. Instead of acting responsibly and doing what N.C. DEQ is requiring now, the company chose to deal with the waste in what appeared to be the cheapest way possible. That has resulted in disastrous spills and breaches and, according to one report, some of the worst ash-contaminated groundwater in the U.S. near Duke’s Allen plant on Lake Wylie. Given the years of warnings about coal ash hazards, Duke’s claims that it was merely doing what other utilities did rings hollow.

We appreciate that Duke, like any business, wants to raise prices to accommodate new expenses. The company has, for years, provided reliable electricity at a relatively low cost. But the Utilities Commission should weigh the burden rate hikes place on low-income customers, and it should consider how Duke has wasted years that could have been spent dealing with the coal ash properly. Duke’s shareholders, not its customers, should pay the price for those mistakes. At the least, the burden should be distributed more equitably.

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