Questions linger as coal ash neighbors receive financial package details from Duke Energy
By Josh Bergeron
DUKEVILLE — A financial package offered to coal ash neighbors by Duke Energy arrived in mailboxes Wednesday, but questions remain about details of the agreement.
In letters to Rowan County residents who live within a half mile of coal ash ponds, Duke Energy offers $5,000 as a “goodwill payment,” a stipend that covers 25 years of water bills and a property value protection plan for people who choose to sell their homes. The letters arrived just over two weeks after the utility unveiled the financial package.
The cost will be borne by Duke shareholders and not ratepayers, the company said. People who take the offer have to also release the company from liability for water contamination.
A decision about the financial package isn’t due until after public meetings scheduled later this month. A decision about whether locals want a water line connection or filtration system is due at the same time, the company said.
The financial package and information about a permanent water supply came in the same envelope. But those who accept the financial package are not required to accept the deal to receive a water-filtration system or municipal water connection. A permanent, safe water supply is required under state law.
Dukeville resident and activist Deborah Graham on Thursday again raised questions about why the release of liability is required to get the financial offer. Graham noted that Duke has repeatedly claimed it is not responsible for well-water concerns in the community. The company makes the claim again in letters to coal ash neighbors.
“Why sign a release if they’re so certain nothing is wrong anyway?” Graham asked.
In a statement, Salisbury attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, whose law firm represents a number of coal ash neighbors, contrasted Duke’s statement with the contents of Wednesday’s letter.
“Although Duke continues to deny their coal ash basins are impacting neighbors’ wells, it appears they may insist on neighbors foregoing their concerns and releasing Duke from any claims that would potentially arise in the future in exchange for the financial supplement,” Wallace said.
Graham said she hasn’t made a final decision about whether she’ll accept the offer. She guessed that a number of people may take the money.
“People are exhausted. They’re tired of everything” Graham said, noting that it’s been almost two years since her well water was first declared unsafe to drink by state regulators.
Wallace said Duke’s offer raises just as many questions as it answers.
“Duke Energy should be clear about the full and complete terms of any release and the implications signing such release would have on neighbors,” she said. “The ‘property value protection plan’ provides few, if any, specifics. Duke should be completely transparent and provide full disclosure for this plan.”
In the financial package, Duke’s $5,000 offer is described as being “to support your transition to a new water supply, regardless of the water supply option you select for your property.” The water bill stipend represents 25 years of water bill payments at the average rate for the area.
For Rowan County residents, accepting all parts of the financial offer would result in a lump sum of $20,000, according to estimates provided by Duke. That’s before taxes.
Asked about any confusion stemming from Wednesday’s letters, Duke Energy spokeswoman Danielle Peoples said the company is working hard to provide helpful information.
“We want people to have all the information to make the best decision for their family,” Peoples said. “We realize this is a lot of information, and that is why we are hosting open houses in the upcoming weeks to make sure folks have a chance to learn more and get their questions answered.”
The open-house meetings are scheduled for Feb. 15 and 16 at Trading Ford Baptist Church. On both days, the public meetings start at 3:30 p.m. and end at 7:30 p.m. Peoples said local residents who are offered the financial package are encouraged to sign up for a specific time to discuss questions. Contact information is included in the letters sent Wednesday.
Belmont resident Amy Brown, who lives near Allen Steam Station in Gaston County, said she has questions about the property value protection plan. Duke’s letter says owners unable to sell their home for fair-market value will receive compensation for the difference in price. The payment from Duke Energy will be reflected on the title of the property when it’s transferred to a new owner.
“It feels like we are going to be passing a problem on to someone else,” Brown said.
In Rowan County, permanent water lines are scheduled to be connected to all houses by late 2018. Rowan County will design and install the lines. Duke Energy will pay for local contractors to provide a connection from the new lines to individual houses.
Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.
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