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Buck Steam Station neighbors dismiss Duke Energy lawsuit

By Andie Foley
andie.foley@salisburypost.com

Deborah Graham of Salisbury and Amy Brown of Belmont calls themselves the “Real Housewives of Coal Ash.”

But for the pair and other residents near Duke Energy’s retired Buck Steam Station, the reality of ash-affected life has been anything but entertaining, requiring years of drinking bottled water while they wait to be hooked up to clean, public drinking water at Duke’s expense.

One victory in the years-long battle came Wednesday, as community leaders in affected areas dismissed a 2017 lawsuit against the power corporation.

The lawsuit followed a number of “goodwill” supplements offered by the company in January of 2017: $5,000 per property to support the transition to a new water supply, cash stipends to cover 25 years of water bills who move to public water supply, coverage of installation and maintenance of water treatment for homeowners who opt for filtration systems and more.

To receive the supplements, residents had to sign a legal waiver declaring they were fully compensated for any harm or loss suffered as a result of contamination.

This, said Brown and Graham, was the cause for concern. Would the waiver sign away the rights of children and future generations in the affected areas?

Defendants named in the suit include Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress, and plaintiffs sought damages in excess of $25,000.

Attorneys said the proposed waiver was unfair and violates public policy. A public utility cannot force consumers to sign a prospective waiver of claims that may include future negligence of the company, the lawsuit stated.

Mona Lisa Wallace, of Wallace and Graham, P.A., said the lawsuit has since led to more clear language in the release.

“After a lengthy process, the parties are now using a new access agreement — a form that lets Duke and contractors go onto homestead properties,” said Wallace. “There is also a new release form with clarified language. These changes give the families more protection than they had before.”

These protections include a narrower scope of that initial waiver, preserving claims of employees and children, she said. Wallace also said the release now preserves claims for future damages or injuries and preserves all air, home, or non-ground water environmental contamination claims.

In a joint statement, Brown and Graham said that the lawsuit represented only one chapter in a struggle for justice.

“There is so much more work to be done to ensure the safe disposal of the coal ash in our state,” they said. “Now that our communities have come together, we want to make sure that the coal ash is removed and that this removal process goes on safely.”

Erin Culbert with Duke Energy said that the company is glad the suit is behind them.

“As we talked with residents, we were able to clarify misinformation and confusion about what is and is not included in the release they’d be asked to sign,” she said. “We did not change the offering made to them or all eligible neighbors, but we are pleased that through education a lawsuit without merit was dismissed. Now we can continue to focus on providing permanent water solutions to our plant neighbors.”

Graham refrained from commenting on Duke representatives’ claims regarding the merit of their case. She and Brown instead focused on how the coal ash situation has brought together communities across North Carolina to seek protection and change.

“We can only hope that our situation will give others the courage to stand up and speak out when protection and change is desperately needed,” they said. “We are here to say that one person can make a difference — but a group working together can truly move coal ash mountains.”

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