Former CEO: On environment, Duke Energy has been far from dismal

Steam rises from Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear station on Lake Wylie.
Steam rises from Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear station on Lake Wylie.

From William Grigg, former CEO of Duke Power, in response to “McCrory’s Duke Energy ties, coal ash response are issues”:

A recent Observer report on Duke and Gov. Pat McCrory raises the hackles of some of us old Duke retirees. The assertion of unnamed “advocates” that Duke has a “dismal overall environmental record” does not fit the Company we know.

From its inception in 1904, Duke has been concerned about environmental quality. It has been given high priority, and the company has made major investments to protect and enhance it. Early on the company initiated an extensive and active forestry management program covering some 20,000 acres of forest land designed to prevent soil erosion and runoff from neighboring farms and communities that may have contained farm or industrial wastes from entering the lakes they surrounded. That program was terminated in the 1970s when the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission determined that it was no longer useful.

A second initiative was established some 50 years ago when a state of the art environmental laboratory was built on Lake Norman. Its sole purpose is the protection and the enhancement of water quality and aquatic life on the company’s lakes. The laboratory is staffed by a group of dedicated environmental scientists. It has been my privilege to have known a number of them and know them to be as committed to a clean, safe environment as any other group of “advocates.” Their work has made a major contribution to lakes that provide clean water to a number of municipalities, good fishing and safe aquatic recreation.

Another of Duke’s under-appreciated contributions to the environment has been its move into nuclear power in the 1960s. Nuclear has proven to be the most environmentally benign source of base load electric power yet devised. The nation’s commercial power reactors collectively have a record of over 4,000 reactor-years of clean power production. Duke’s reactors alone have avoided the release of thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that equivalent coal-fired generation would have produced. They will continue to do so until sufficient, reliable, economically alternative energy sources can be developed. Duke is an industry leader in the effort make that happen.

Finally, with regard to the coal ash issue: In my years at Duke, it was generally thought throughout the power industry that coal ash is no more toxic than many other things found everyday in nature. Some of us take daily vitamins that contain selenium, and the rice and apples we eat may contain a trace of arsenic. It is not the existence of of these elements that is harmful, it is the concentration that counts.

This is not to excuse the coal ash spill, but to put into perspective. It was not the result of malevolent intent – or lack of concern for the environment – but rather an under-appreciation of the results should it occur. Duke has publicly accepted full responsibility for the spill. It has paid a penalty and has committed to take measures in ensure that there won’t be a recurrence. It was an unfortunate and regrettable event.

So, I don’t believe that Duke has a “dismal overall environmental record.” Nor do I accept the “narrative” that Governor McCrory’s office has done more to “mollify Duke than police it.” Unlike the Tennessee Valley Authority (a federal agency which experienced an ash spill a few years ago that was more than a hundred times larger than Duke’s), Duke has paid a significant penalty.