We cannot rely on Erin Brockovich to save the day

Three recent events have flooded my brain with the need to call out to Erin Brockovich. She is a real life person portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie by the same name. Not to spoil it for others, but she fights for the disenfranchised whose water has been polluted by an electric utility that denied such linkage. Yet, we should not be made to rely on white knights like Ms. Brockovich, to make business and government leaders do the right thing.

The first event is the most well-known, with the city of Flint facing a huge water crisis when the state of Michigan tried to save money by retapping into water from the Flint River using pipes that had significant lead build-up. The story goes deeper when state officials were aware of issues and did nothing. People complained and they did nothing. The people had tests done by a reputable source and the findings were denigrated. The governor holds much of the blame for letting his state down. Finally, the tidal wave of complaints and notoriety reached a boiling point and something is being slowly done. I think it can be successfully argued that if this was a more affluent community, action would have been taken sooner.

The second event is the continuation of the coal ash leakage in North Carolina. Duke Energy has been ordered to pay another fine for the Dan River coal ash spill last year. In their own documents, the company knew dating back to 1986 that the pipe that breached was not the type that would survive long term. They also failed to spend on at least two occasions $20,000 to fix the pipe as late as 2007. On top of this, the company has continually denied that people living near other coal ash dumps have water that is contaminated. They have been ordered to do something with these sites, but are accused of using faulty data leading them to a conclusion away from moving the coal ash, which is the more expensive solution.

The third event is equally disappointing about a disappointing court case. About thirty Republican-led states are suing the EPA on violating its authority under the Obama Clean Power Plan requirements which phase in changes over time. My state is one of those states, which is odd as we can easily meet and blow past the plan being the 4th most prolific state in solar energy. The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday to freeze the implementation requirement until the court case is completed, a ruling even surprising the complainants. On top of the campaign finance rulings, this may have been the poorest ruling I have witnessed by this court. It is very disheartening and runs counter to what the world needs us to do to address climate change.

We cannot rely on Erin to save the day, We cannot rely on governors to always do the right thing, as it is not uncommon to look to save money at the expense of citizens who are less inclined to vote for them. We cannot rely on business leaders to “be more than profits” and invest in our community and remedy actions when they are harmful. We must pressure our leaders to think about the environment. Truth be told, the groundswell of actions that have been occurring have propelled us forward. In fact, the best thing coming out of Paris is The Breakthrough Energy Coalition which is led by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. But, we need government and industry to do their part and help, not hinder these efforts.

Our biggest risks over the next ten years, as measured by the World Economic Forum, are actions on climate change and our global water crisis (the latter goes beyond Flint, but we cannot waste water). Yet, neither of these topics is discussed by one political party and the other does not talk enough about them to distinguish themselves for voters. We can ill-afford a President who does not address these issues going forward. And, we certainly do not need one who said “global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to steal our jobs” and who unsuccessfully sued the Scottish government to stop them from putting wind mills off the coast of his golf course development.

When things get too cozy – the travails of Duke Energy and DENR

I have been a customer and shareholder of Duke Energy for over thirty years. I have also been a North Carolina taxpayer for the same length of time. For the most part, Duke Energy has been a good company and recognized as such in its industry. Yet it has had a few moments when it got involved with some accounting irregularities in South Carolina and it bought into the gas transmission industry before it exited it with much egg on its face. With that context, I want to share my disappointment in Duke on the coal ash spill that could have been avoided along with their response. I also want to add that criticism of too cozy a relationship between Duke, the NC Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) and our governor is well placed.

As many of you know, Duke Energy is responsible for coal ash leaks on the North Carolina and Virginia border which have spilled coal ash into the Dan River. The “Dan” provides water to several communities in Rockingham County, which ironically is the seat of the Senate Leader in NC, Phil Berger. Rightfully so, Senator Berger has expressed outrage at Duke and their failure to notify people timely and their poor response.  However, the senator is also responsible for helping defang the environmental protections in our state and promoting fracking with an industry loaded committee to study the issue, so he has contributed to our lackluster environmental protection.

Duke is concerned about fixing the problem, but what troubles me is the issue of the coal ash ponds in our state was raised by several environmental groups last year in a lawsuit. They shared many concerns over the dozens of coal ash ponds, but the DENR decided to make it easier by consolidating the lawsuits into one and then settling with Duke for a fine of $99,000 and a commitment to clean things up on Duke’s timetable. That number is correct – a Fortune 500 company was fined the amount of $99,000, which cannot even count as being a slap on the wrist. As of this post, DENR has been sued by the Environmental Protection Agency and copies of emails have been requested to discern any foul play.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that our governor, Pat McCrory was an employee of Duke Energy before winning the governor’s race. However, this cozy relationship has been fairly cozy for some time, predating McCrory’s tenure. But, under the guise of reducing so-called burdensome regulations on industry, the environmental restrictions have been greatly loosened in our state, especially the past three years. Our General Assembly has passed some questionable legislation as well as considering rolling back a requirement to do more alternative energy, before it was beaten back when they realized late how successful the solar energy industry has been here. The Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, noted his surprise that NC was the 5th most prolific solar energy state in the country at the time.

As a Duke shareholder, I have sent two emails to the previous and current CEOs about cleaning up the coal ash ponds. The first one was last spring to Jim Rogers and the second one was this past week to Lynn Good, the new CEO.  She came out in the paper saying the clean-up of the Dan River spill is on Duke (shareholders) while the clean up of other coal ash ponds will be on the customers. This last statement has not sat well with customers. Good is thinking too much like she was still in her old job of CFO and not like someone whose company screwed up and people were harmed. I understand her rationale, but by failing to act last year, Duke threw away the last shred of goodwill on this subject. The governor is banging on the lid of a trash can now, but he is a little behind on the issue in most people’s minds, as well.

Duke Energy, you are better than this. You have done some nice things in alternative energy and shut down some coal plants. That is good and you should be commended. Now, do the right thing and clean up the ponds before the next accident. Do what you should have done last year when you were apprised of the concerns. You should also be thinking about more creative ways to pay for this and not place the lion’s share of the burden on customers. And, please continue decommissioning the coal-fired plants as you have been doing. We need to divorce ourselves from coal at a faster clip as there is no such thing as clean coal and it does not get cleaner sitting in a coal ash pond.

I would also encourage you to link to a much more thorough post in Amaya’s blog called The Brabble Rabble.  Amaya includes greater detail about the defanging of the DENR and other environmental groups in North Carolina. Here is a link: http://thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/politics-north-carolina-style-coal-ash-pollutes-nc-waters-as-regulatory-body-endures-job-and-funding-cuts-duke-energy-promises-to-pass-clean-up-costs-on-to-customers/#comment-2251