Editorial: Customers should not foot the bill

Jun. 11, 2014 @ 10:37 PM

When it comes to easy decisions, Duke Energy made one on Monday.

It has agreed to pay “reasonable” costs associated with the Feb. 2 spill at its power plant in Eden. The agreement is with environmental and wildlife officials in North Carolina and Virginia.

It is also with and for its customers, soon to be the poorer as a result of Duke Energy taking “responsibility.”

Duke Energy’s public relations line of taking responsibility for the spill runs a bit hollow. They’re taking actions, they’re reviewing standard operating procedure and they’re trying to say the right things publicly.

But it can’t get around earlier decisions on what to do with coal ash. The decisions now look poor. And Duke Energy, an electric company larger than any other in the country worth about $50 billion, isn’t going to hurt its investors.

The company’s CEO and president, Lynn Good, said last month the company and its stockholders would pay the costs of cleaning up the Dan River. She also said she expects customers to pay for closing its ash ponds and removing ash.

That was the day she was being honored at Queens University as the Business Woman of the Year.

Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general, has fought three rate hikes by Duke Energy already. He’s also gone on record saying he’ll fight Duke Energy billing customers for ash.

Gov. Pat McCrory, formerly on Duke Energy’s payroll, who recently made moves to distance himself from the company, would be wise to step into what will clearly be seen as a political ploy. He also needs to insist Duke Energy not bill customers for ash.

But an even better solution is for Duke Energy to relieve both Cooper and McCrory. There was no part of Monday’s agreement, or the announcement of it, that indicated customers need not worry about their bills as a result of the catastrophe.

The General Assembly has a bill in the works tied to Duke Energy’s 33 ash dumps and 14 power plants located along rivers and lakes that towns rely on for drinking water. All 14 sites could cost $10 billion in ash removal.

Earlier choices raised profits, growth and net worth. Stockholders approved those decision-makers, not customers. Who should pay now is very clear.