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Investors ask Duke’s board to probe ash spill

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JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Coal ash slurry pours into the first of two ponds adjacent to Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Station on Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte’s drinking water source. Officials may take millions of tons of coal ash from the retired station and bury it in lined, capped enclosures at the airport.

Nineteen of Duke Energy’s institutional investors, including three state treasurers, want Duke’s board to investigate the Feb. 2 coal ash spill into the Dan River.

“Deeply troubled” investors organized by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a New York social-justice group that often raises shareholder proposals, made the demand in a letter Thursday to Duke’s board.

The foundation earlier submitted a shareholder proposal that Duke disclose its political contributions, which according to a recent report favored Republican causes. Investors will vote on the proposal at the annual meeting May 1; Duke’s board opposes it.

The investors said Thursday that they want the facts behind the February spill and estimates of cleanup costs to Duke and its customers. As a federal grand jury investigates Duke’s ash management, they asked whether senior management acted improperly.

“Our concerns include the severity of the spill, Duke’s purported violations of numerous regulations, the lack of clarity on cleanup and costs, the failure to adequately address the future disposition of Duke’s other coal ash ponds and federal criminal subpoenas” to Duke, state environmental regulators and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, the letter says.

The investors ask the Duke board’s Regulatory Policy and Operations Committee to launch an independent investigation, separate from the company’s own inquiry and report to shareholders.

Duke, in response, said CEO Lynn Good outlined the company’s plans on ash management to Gov. Pat McCrory and environment Secretary John Skvarla on March 12. Good followed up with letters to McCrory and state legislators this week.

Duke has said it will review how it handles coal ash across its six-state territory. It also will move ash away from water at three North Carolina plants: Dan River, Riverbend west of Charlotte and Asheville.

“Our management has regularly updated the board on matters related to the Dan River coal ash discharge and our comprehensive plan to prevent future similar events, which includes taking a second look at our ash pond management activities,” Duke said in a statement.

“We have engaged independent engineering experts to perform a comprehensive assessment of all of our ash basins that will be complete by May 31.”

The Cummings Foundation owns 1,320 Duke shares worth about $93,000. Many of the institutional investors that also signed the letter own far larger stakes in Duke.

They include the state treasurers of Oregon, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the director of Illinois’ investment board and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The California retirement fund, as of mid-2013, owned 1.8 million Duke shares worth $125 million.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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