In a counter to its February coal ash spill into the Dan River, Duke Energy announced a $10 million fund Wednesday for Carolinas waterways.
The money will be used to improve water quality, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and expand public access. It may also buff a corporate image battered by the “profound event,” as CEO Lynn Good called the nation’s third-largest ash spill.
“We earn trust and respect from our customers and communities every day,” Good said after a Charlotte event announcing the Water Resources Fund. “I think Dan River has put us in a position to work a little bit harder.”
The fund reserves $1.5 million for projects in the Dan River basin. Duke will separately grant $500,000 to improve a park in Danville, Va., which bore the brunt of the spill.
Projects in the Carolinas and three states downstream of Duke power plants – in Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee – will be eligible for grants. Duke announced eight initial grants totaling $765,000.
Among them was $50,000 to the Charlotte-based Catawba Lands Conservancy to help protect habitat for an endangered mussel found in Waxhaw Creek in Union County. Duke’s foundation donated $25,000 to the conservancy last year to help preserve 152 acres along the creek.
Executive Director Tom Okel said the conservancy’s work is preservation, not advocacy. Duke, he added, has been a longtime supporter.
“The fact that Duke is having issues with some of their business units is not a reason to end that relationship,” he said.
Last October, Asheville’s City Council passed a resolution urging Duke to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, including the coal-fired power plant there. On Wednesday, Vice Mayor Marc Hunt accepted $45,000 from Duke to install educational kiosks along a city greenway.
“I think the responsible civic and political leadership sort of understands when we can agree and disagree,” Hunt said later. “We’re just too small a community to stay mad at anybody forever.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over ash contamination claims, said the company could make a larger impression by moving its ash away from waterways.
“Avoiding the Danville spill would have done more for philanthropy than writing a check,” said attorney Frank Holleman.
Duke has agreed, or been ordered by legislators, to excavate ash and place it in lined disposal sites at five Carolinas power plants. North Carolina legislation requires Duke to close ponds at 10 other plants within 15 years, but some ash could stay in place covered by protective caps.
The North Carolina Community Foundation, a Raleigh agency that works with individual donors, businesses and nonprofit groups, will administer the new water fund.
A seven-member committee, including two members from Duke and five from outside the company, will decide which grants to approve. Committee members include Barry Gullet, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.