Duke Energy

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy's fine is laughable

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It's all about the context:

While these latest fines might seem steep to those of us who are not huge utility companies, Duke Energy has assets of $120.7 billion. Six and a half million is loose change to Duke, a company whose CEO made $10.5 million the year after the coal-ash spill — a $2.5 million raise from the year before. And even the $102 million Duke agreed to pay the feds is hardly enough to clean up the damage the company caused. As ThinkProgress points out, a study from last year “estimated the ecological, recreational, aesthetic, and human health damages from the spill totaled $295,485,000. And that study looked at only the first six months after the spill, meaning the total damage could end up being higher.”

It's also important to remember: Duke Energy's "cleanup" from the Dan River spill only removed a fraction of the volume of toxic coal ash released into the river, leaving over 90% of the mess where it came to rest. The only thing that's harder to calculate than the total environmental damage done by Duke Energy is the amount of influence they wield in state government and the conflicts of interest generated by their political spending:

Duke Energy will request rate hikes for coal ash disposal

Because every step they take is a money-making opportunity:

"But we will do everything we can to keep cost impacts as manageable as possible in any potential cost recovery filing that we might make in the future," Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email.

The company said excavating and reburying the coal ash in lined landfills could cost as much as $10 billion. That's more than Duke Energy spent to scrap a quarter of its coal-burning power capacity and open 10 new natural gas and coal plants in North Carolina, Florida and Indiana since 2009, the company said.

And now comes the economic coercion: If you force us to do what we should have done in the first place, bury this toxic mess in lined pits, we will make you pay for it yourselves. Besides, we have better things to do with our profits than fix our own mistakes with it:

Duke Energy-funded "advisory board" recommends they not spend billions relocating coal ash

How can you afford advisory boards if you spend all that money?

An advisory board created by Duke Energy says all of the company’s coal ash ponds in North Carolina can safely be capped in place.

When asked by the Charlotte Business Journal about possible criticism that the Advisory Board is “bought and paid for” by Duke Energy, Daniels said: “All these reports have been submitted, signed and sealed by professional engineers and scientists… They are professionals, and that matters more than who they are working for.”

The first thing that popped into my head reading that declaration of professionalism was the Bush quote "Tribal sovereignty means that; it's sovereign. I mean, you're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity." Just because you're a professional it doesn't mean you're not prone to bias or withholding information that could be damaging to your clients. Lawyers are professionals too, and "who they are working for" is a consideration that eclipses all others, including the truth.

Utilities Commission rules stifle public input on new Duke facility

Your layman's point of view is not wanted:

Speakers will have to be sworn in. Although that’s not unheard of at some local-government meetings in which a commission, board or council must vote to open a quasi-judicial proceeding, the implications of it for the Utilities Commission hearing could be different. Testimony under oath is expected to be truthful. Unlike many local boards, testimony to the utility commission would be subject to cross-examination. A person who testified about anything other than their own opinions should be prepared to have their factual claims challenged during cross-examination.

Being placed under oath begs the question of consequences for untruthful testimony. While there’s no precedent for charging someone with offering false testimony at a hearing of this type, in theory someone who swore to tell the truth and then knowingly bore false witness could face prosecution for perjury.

While I understand the need for quasi-judicial proceedings in many cases, the Utilities Commission should not be so insulated. They allow only one voice (Executive Director of the Public Staff) to represent the people, and that representation is already filtered and edited by the time it reaches the ears of the NCUC. They're operating in a safe little bubble, and that is not conducive to public service. And that public deserves the right to speak, without the aura of legal consequences if some of their words can be disputed as "false testimony."

Coal Ash Wednesday: Duke Energy's new PR firm

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DEQ's "damage control" unit defends revised classifications:

State regulators say that a controversial early draft of classifications for Duke Energy’s (NYSE:DUK) coal-ash ponds in North Carolina was largely based on incomplete dam safety information and lacking key data about groundwater and soil conditions at the sites.

And the early draft leaned heavily on dam safety information that Rusher says was out of date. “Later, dam safety considerations were updated to include current and future structural repairs that would remove the threat that the dam presented to the environment and public safety,” he says. “Early versions of any draft documents during the development of the draft classifications are incomplete and are not inclusive of the most current data and information that was collectively considered.”

Bolding mine. These classifications are meant to describe the current condition of the dams, not some "forward-looking" statement for investors. A problem isn't fixed until it's fixed. And considering Duke Energy's history of negligence in dam safety, any promises they made to repair these dams is seriously in question:

The bizarro world of Pat McCrory

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Corrupt, unethical, and completely unfit for public office:

McCrory called the report "a story about nothing" and was critical of both WRAL News' original report and other outlets for following and commenting on it. "This is politics at its worst and journalism at its worst," McCrory said.

He added later, "There are always going to be issues going on with the largest companies in North Carolina. When do you not meet with these companies?"

Jebus cripes. You *do not* meet with these companies when various subordinates in your administration are investigating them for violations of regs and statutes, you do not meet with them days before deciding to sell investment shares in their company, you do not meet with them when their contract with state government is on the rocks and they need help "fixing" the problem, you do not meet with them before deciding whom to appoint to boards or commissions, and you do not meet with them when one of your Departments is about to decide how much work they need to do and dollars they need to spend to clean up their act. You were right when you said this is "politics at its worst," you just should have been standing in front of a mirror when you said it.

McCrory's dinner ex parte with Duke Energy

Hat-tip to Mark Binker for reading the tea leaves:

But on June 1, while in the midst of pressing legal action against and issuing news releases critical of the nation's largest utility, top state officials met for a private dinner at the Executive Mansion with Duke executives, according to calendar entries and other records reviewed by WRAL News.

McCrory, his top environmental regulator, his chief of staff and his general counsel attended, as did Duke Chief Executive Lynn Good, the company's general counsel and the president of the company's North Carolina operations.

Go read the whole story. As usual, Mark takes advantage of his freedom from column space restrictions to provide an in-depth exploration of the issue, as well as providing the context necessary to fully understand the ethics. Or lack of, as in this case. And this (lack of) commenting speaks volumes, as well:

DEQ ignores its own staff in classifying coal ash ponds

Thanks for your input, but we have other plans:

Despite staff recommendations that virtually all Duke Energy’s 32 coal ponds should be rated high risk, state regulators charged with classifying the sites listed most at lower risk levels.

“I am disappointed that special interest groups attempted to corrupt the process by leaking an early draft that was based on incomplete data,” DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said. “The draft classifications released today reflect the latest environmental science.”

Translated: "I thought everybody was on board with saving Duke Energy as much money as possible, but apparently a wink wink, nudge nudge wasn't enough to get that message across. We'll be holding some training sessions in the near future with a couple of former Enron executives on the importance of body language when your boss is trying to tell you something he can't say outloud."

Coal Ash Wednesday: "Beneficial" to whom?

It's not just an adjective, it's a license to pollute:

Administrative Law Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter is holding a hearing this week in Raleigh on a challenge to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to allow a “beneficial use” permit for the ash to be buried at the Brickhaven and Colon mines as part of what the state calls a reclamation project.

The opposing groups contend the burial is really nothing more than a landfill, not a reclamation project. As a landfill, it would be subject to more stringent environmental controls than as a beneficial use project.

Companies like Charah who deal in CCRs (Coal Combustion Residuals) invested a lot of time, effort, and money crafting the language used in their business. They fought (successfully) to keep coal ash from being classified as a "hazardous" waste, even though it contains both heavy metals and radioactive elements, as well as a smorgasbord of other toxins. And now their clever use of the word "beneficial" is allowing them to leapfrog over a second category. It's not a hazardous landfill, and it's not even a landfill, it's a reclamation project. The fact that DEQ has bought into this purely subjective classification is just one more nail in its integrity coffin.

Erratic behavior behind DEQ's feud with EPA

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Necessary changes or intentionally confusing?

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality says it has tried to develop a wastewater permit for the closed Riverbend Steam Station, a first of its kind involving removal of coal ash, based on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But it complains that the EPA has contradicted itself on provisions and dithered about approving the state’s plans.

“For well over a year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has prevented the cleanup of coal ash ponds in North Carolina,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment at DEQ.

I'm sure many advocates are frustrated over these delays, but the activity in question, the "dewatering" of coal ash ponds, is a potential source for a great deal of permitted contamination of our water resources. Arriving at the least hazardous solution is imperative, lest the cure be worse than the sickness. All that said, it appears DEQ has been complicating the process with continual rewrites:

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