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Duke Energy to offer $5,000 payment to coal ash neighbors

By Josh Bergeron
josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Neighbors of Buck Steam Station may soon find a large financial offer in their mailbox from the nation’s largest electric company.

Shortly after state regulators on Friday gave preliminary approval to Duke Energy’s water supply plans, the company announced it would offer each household a $5,000 “goodwill payment” to ease a transition to a permanent supply, which must be provided under state law. The company also announced it’s willing to pay for 25 years of water bills for coal ash neighbors who choose to hook onto a municipal water line. Both items will be distributed in a one-time lump sum, said company spokeswoman Erin Culbert.

“We hear through a variety of channels concerns about a few different things, some concerns about property values, potential new water bills and disturbances because of construction or maintenance,” Culbert said when describing the reason for the payments.

In a news release, Duke Energy North Carolina President David Fountain also discussed why the company will provide the “goodwill payment.”

“We care for the communities we serve and recognize the uncertainty neighbors experienced with water standards,” he said in the news release. “That’s why we voluntarily provided bottled water, supported the legislation to offer neighbors a new, permanent water supply and are now adding a goodwill financial supplement.”

Culbert said neighbors of coal ash ponds will receive a packet of information in a few weeks that, among other things, contains information about the payments. Within eight weeks of returning an agreement, coal ash neighbors should receive a one-time, lump-sum payment, she said.

She also noted that the $5,000 payment is optional. Additionally, coal ash neighbors who opt for a filtration system instead of hooking onto a water line will not be paid for 25 years of water bills. The total amount of the water bill payment will be determined according to local rates. A Duke Energy news release estimated some lump-sum payments for water bills may be as high as $22,000.

When asked, Culbert said coal ash neighbors will have to agree to some conditions before receiving a payment. Conditions include releasing Duke Energy of any groundwater contamination concerns. Culbert said she doesn’t believe there’s any sort of nondisclosure agreement included in the packet of information.

Local attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, who represents a number of coal ash neighbors, said it was too early to say whether she’d be advising her clients to decline the payments. However, Wallace said the payment wasn’t adequate.

“Our law firm has been fighting for clean water and monetary compensation from the beginning for our coal ash clients,” Wallace said in a prepared statement. “Duke Energy’s position fails to take into account the individual circumstances and the substantial harm that many of the neighbors have suffered. We believe that Duke’s announcement is too little, too late.”

Continuing, Wallace said many homeowners have seen their property value severely damaged. Homeowners are entitled to a greater compensation than what Duke is promising, she said.

“These families should have received clean water hookups at no cost to themselves, many months ago as this crisis has dragged on far too long,” Wallace said. “We continue to review our legal options for our many affected clients.”

In Rowan County, the payment from the company will likely come before Duke Energy provides a permanent water solution. Although a filtration system could be installed more quickly, water lines aren’t projected to be completed in Dukeville until 2018. Once installed in coal ash communities, water lines or filtration systems for individual houses allow Duke Energy to meet a condition in state law that allows regulators to downgrade coal ash ponds to low priority, which allows for a cap-in-place solution instead of excavation.

In Rowan County, the story is a bit different.

Like other coal ash communities around the state, Dukeville residents have faced questions about water quality since state regulators declared water wells unsafe to drink in 2015. Later, state regulators said well water was safe to drink, but legislators passed a measure requiring the company to provide a permanent, safe source of water. As a result, the company may face an easier solution to water woes.

In Rowan County, coal ash ponds may still be ranked low priority by environmental regulators, but a legal settlement between Duke Energy and the Yadkin Riverkeeper requires the company excavate and recycle all coal ash stored at Buck Steam Station. Alternatively, coal ash can be excavated and placed in a lined landfill that’s away from groundwater and the Yadkin River. Coal ash that’s recycled could be used in concrete.

On Friday, Duke Energy also made an announcement related to home sales. If a homeowner sells his or her property or is under contract to sell before Oct. 16, 2019, and doesn’t receive fair market value, the company will cover the difference.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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