On May 7, Duke held its annual shareholder meeting outside its headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Like most publicly-traded corporations, Duke tried to put on a “dog and pony show” to excite investors and financial media about the prospects for Duke’s future. Instead, Duke’s CEO Lynn Good was interrupted by vocal protests and forced again and again to talk about the pollution and future liability created by its coal ash. Meanwhile, outside the meeting, community members from across NC demanded that Duke clean up its toxic mess and pursue a clean energy future.
Early in the proceedings, Duke’s shareholders voted, contrary to the board’s recommendation, to approve a resolution giving shareholders more power to nominate candidates for Duke’s board. Some proponents of the resolution, including New York City’s comptroller, have pointed to Duke’s handling of the Dan River spill as justification to diversify the skills and experience represented by Duke’s directors.
Investors have good reason for such concerns. Fines and costs related to Duke’s toxic coal ash impoundments in NC and the Dan River spill are piling up, reaching almost $150M just since February 2014. That price tag includes $102 million in fines and restitution for 9 misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act at four of NC’s rivers. Impoundments at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants have leaked toxic substances into groundwater for decades.
The Dan River spill has consequences for Duke beyond damaging its reputation. NC’s General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act in the fall of 2014 as a direct result. Though the act doesn’t adequately protect NC’s communities and waterways, it does require Duke to clean up its coal ash impoundments, which will be costly. Under the act, NC’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) required Duke to pay for testing at private wells withing 1,000 feet of its 32 coal ash impoundments throughout the state. So far, the results demonstrate that 93% of the wells are contaminated. Only time will tell how much these contaminated wells will cost the corporation. Duke might have avoided these added costs for its investors by managing its coal ash more responsibly and aggressively pursuing renewable energy.
Duke’s decades of missed opportunities to address its coal ash and recent reluctance to lead on renewable energy help explain why impacted community members interrupted CEO Good’s presentation to shareholders. At least 8 citizens stood to demand that Duke “stop blocking rooftop solar.” Duke opposes the Energy Freedom Act, which has the potential to expand the market for rooftop solar in the state. The company was recently called out for targeting black community leaders with a “cynical” anti-solar campaign as part of its effort to defeat the proposed legislation. Community members and diverse organizations from across the state* gathered outside Duke’s headquarters before and after the meeting, ensuring that investors, management, the board, and financial media covering the event couldn’t ignore their concerns over coal ash and Duke’s attempts to block the Energy Freedom Act. The inside disruption and outside protest were prominently featured in national coverage, making community concerns over coal ash the highlight of the entire event.
Coal ash is clearly a huge liability for Duke and its investors. The financial costs are easier to measure, but the damage to Duke’s reputation and its loss of public trust were also on display at the annual shareholder meeting. Duke’s management is completely unable to ignore coal ash even on a day when it would rather focus on the positive highlights of its performance.
We hope Duke will take the high road and begin rebuilding public trust, by acting on the concerns of community members gathered yesterday. Duke needs to properly store its coal ash in dry, lined facilities away from our rivers and waterways and move much more aggressively towards a renewable energy future. Until Duke makes these critical changes, it can expect the financial and reputational costs to continue to pile up, as public trust withers away.
*Groups included: Action NC, App Voices, Center for Community Action (Lumberton NC), Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash, Charlotte Environmental Action, Charlotte NAACP, Down East Coal Ash Committee, Greenpeace NC, Moms Clean Air Force, NC Environmental Justice Network, NC WARN, NC Raise Up for $15, Sierra Club-Charlotte Chapter.