Duke Energy said Friday it will offer private well owners who live near coal ash ponds up to $53 million in cash and expenses as it moves to connect them to alternative water supplies.
The offer includes “goodwill” payments of $5,000 to each of the approximately 960 homeowners or businesses within a half-mile of the ponds, which contain metals that can contaminate water. Those accepting the money would agree not to sue Duke; many residents have hired lawyers.
Duke said it will pay stipends of $8,000 to $22,000, depending on local water rates, to cover future water bills for well owners who agree to connect to public water lines. It would also make up the difference if homeowners sell their homes below fair market value over the next three years.
An attorney for most of the well owners near Duke’s power plants in Gaston and Rowan counties called the offer inadequate.
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Duke released the figures after North Carolina’s environment department gave initial approval to the company’s plan to connect power plant neighbors to municipal water lines or filtration systems.
State law orders Duke to provide alternative water to people who live within a half-mile of coal ash ponds clustered at 13 power plants in the state. Duke denies that its ash is the source of contaminants found in hundreds of wells.
“We hope these homeowners will perceive the packages to be generous and meaningful, and allow them to move forward,” company spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.
State officials tested wells near Duke’s power plants in early 2015 and found hundreds with contaminants that might come from ash. Health officials advised homeowners not to drink their water before reversing course a year later.
Belmont resident Amy Brown, one of hundreds of Duke neighbors who have relied on bottled water for 21 months, said she was “pleased to see that Duke is making an effort to acknowledge that this is a real problem for their neighbors. This has impacted us in so many ways, and not just with the water.”
But Brown said the $5,000 offer seemed low as she recounted her family’s life: Twisting the caps off 48 bottles of water to cook Christmas dinner; refilling a backyard pool that’s been unused for two summers; and expecting her kids’ childhood memories to be that of pallets of bottled water.
“That sounds like you smacked me in the face, is what it sounds like,” she said.
Duke said in December that it plans to connect 702 homes and businesses near its ash ponds to public water lines, including most neighbors near the Charlotte-area plants – Allen on Lake Wylie, Marshall on Lake Norman and Buck on the Yadkin River in Rowan County.
Duke will offer water filtration to communities around three plants that are far from municipal lines: Belews Creek in Stokes County and Mayo and Roxboro in Person County.
Duke’s shareholders would cover the $22 million the goodwill packages would be estimated to cost, Sheehan said. Duke plans to ask the state Utilities Commission to let it charge customers for the $31 million cost of extending water lines and installing filtration systems.
“We view the goodwill package as a meaningful investment for these neighbors and their communities, but it will also benefit all customers and help protect their electric bills,” Sheehan said. “Once we complete the water projects, we will have the full range of closure options to safely close ash basins, including capping them in place. That options protects the environment, minimizes disruption to communities and is much more cost effective than full excavation with disposal again at a new location.”
A state law passed after Duke’s 2014 ash spill into the Dan River ordered Duke to close all 32 of its ash ponds across the state. Duke hopes to cover ponds that hold about two-thirds of its 111 million tons of ash instead of excavating the ash as environmental advocates prefer.
Duke’s offer falls short, said a lawyer for most of the well owners near Duke’s Allen plant in Belmont and the Buck plant in Rowan County, as well as neighbors of other power plants.
“We believe that Duke’s announcement is too little, too late,” Salisbury lawyer Mona Lisa Wallace said in a statement. “Duke’s monetary offer does not begin to compensate the worst-affected homeowners. Many individuals have had their property value severely damaged and they are entitled to greater compensation that what Duke is now promising. In addition, 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. We continue to review our legal options for our many affected clients.”
With initial state approval, Duke now has until April 15 to contact affected residents or businesses and learn their preferences. State law requires Duke to supply the alternative water by October 2018, although Duke could seek one-year extensions.
The Department of Environmental Quality said it will grant final approval to Duke’s plans when it’s proven that alternative water sources or filtration meets safety standards.
“We are pleased to see progress on providing people who live in affected areas with a safe drinking water supply,” Jay Zimmerman, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources, said in a statement.