Some Coal Ash Neighbors Balk At Duke 'Goodwill' Payments

Jan 20, 2017

State law requires Duke Energy to provide public water line connections or water filtration systems to about a thousand households near its North Carolina coal ash dumps by late 2018. Last week, the company offered a cash bonus, too - but only if homeowners give up the right to sue. Some don't like the offer. 

Duke calls it a "goodwill financial supplement," to make up for construction disruptions, the burden of new water bills, and possible lost property value.  

Homeowners on private wells within a half-mile of most Duke coal ash sites are being offered: 

  • $5,000 per property, as a "goodwill payment ... to support the transition to a new water supply."
  • Another $8,000 to $22,000 to cover the projected cost of new water bills for 25 years. That would come in a single payment.
  • A "property value protection plan." If they sell their property before Oct. 15, 2019, for less than fair market value, Duke will make up the difference.

Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the payments are the right thing to do, not an admission that Duke's coal ash basins contaminated any wells. The company says ground water flows and tests show coal ash is not affecting most private wells. And yes, the payments come with strings attached: "To receive the voluntary financial supplement that we're offering, we will ask folks to sign a standard agreement that would say they would not want to seek additional compensation (from) the company," Culbert said. That would help Duke by limiting future payouts and making the company's coal ash cleanup costs more predictable. But some well owners are balking at the offer. "Five thousand dollars is ridiculous, it is an insult … in so many ways," says Amy Brown, who lives near coal ash ponds at the Allen plant in Gaston County.  

Tests show her well is contaminated with potentially cancer-causing chemicals she believes are from coal ash. She's one of hundreds of homeowners living on bottled water provided by Duke since 2015.

"5,000 is what you're putting on the price tag for what we have been through, this nightmare that was no fault of ours, for the last almost two years now," Brown said.

Brown says the cash payment works out to about $1.71 a day since her well problems were discovered.

Deborah Graham lives on Dukeville Road in Salisbury, near the Buck plant and its coal ash ponds. She's worried about future medical problems.

"I don't think anybody in their right mind would sign away, for a little peasley $5,000, the health issues. We really want and need to be medically monitored, for our lifetime," Graham said.

Brown and Graham have lots of other questions about Duke's offer, which they actually haven't received yet. How will future water bills be calculated? What if they want to sell their homes, but can't – will Duke buy their homes? 

The women also complain that Duke won't communicate with their lawyers, who represent about 500 households across the state. That's about half the total affected by Duke's water supply plans.  

One of those lawyers, Mona Lisa Wallace of Salisbury, said she doesn't have any idea how to advise her clients yet, because Duke hasn't shared any information with her, or the homeowners.    

Culbert said Duke is communicating directly with homeowners because the financial offer isn't part of any settlement and because not all those eligible have lawyers. 

Duke estimates the price tag for the supplements will be $22 million if all 1,000 affected homeowners sign on. Shareholders would pay that – not customers.

The company also will spend another $31 million to connect homes to public water systems or install and maintain filtration systems. The company plans to ask state utilities regulators for a rate increase to cover those costs, and the rest of Duke's coal ash cleanups statewide.  

Duke plans to send letters with details about the offer to well owners in the next two weeks. Homeowner information meetings about the water supply options are planned in February. 

RELATED LINKS

Jan. 13, 2017, Duke-Energy.com, "Duke Energy moving forward with permanent water solutions, details financial supplements"

Duke Energy web page with details on permanent water plans around its coal ash sites,  duke-energy.com/WaterPlans.