Viewpoint

Duke Energy: We want to keep people safe after Florence

The earthen berm around Sutton Lake, which contained coal ash from a nearby coal ash pond, collapsed in many places due to the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
The earthen berm around Sutton Lake, which contained coal ash from a nearby coal ash pond, collapsed in many places due to the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. jwall@newsobserver.com

When a tragedy such as Hurricane Florence strikes, it typically brings out the best in people: neighbors helping neighbors, first responders putting themselves in harm’s way, and a generous outpouring of contributions to relief agencies.

While every one of these acts of kindness are helping to restore a community, some people take advantage of a crisis to instead advance their own interests. That’s the case with a handful of vocal activists — such as the Catawba Riverkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and others—who have chosen to criticize our Sutton and Lee plants under unprecedented circumstances to push their policy agendas rather than productively contribute to the restoration effort.

In the aftermath of historic flooding, and despite meticulous preparatory work, we reported that cenospheres and possibly some ash from Sutton and H.F. Lee plants had made its way to nearby waterways. It is a testament to skillful management of these sites, including close coordination with regulatory agencies, that the ash basin dams have held up and performed as engineered under such extreme conditions.

Further, our tests show that water quality in both the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers are well within the rigorous state water quality standards in place to protect health and the environment. We are deploying booms to reduce the migration of material that had made it off these sites and will continue to monitor the situation as the flood waters recede.

Catawba Riverkeeper spokesman Sam Perkins called in this paper for the recycling of coal ash — and on this point, we can agree. In 2017, Duke Energy recycled 70 percent of the ash we generated, and we’re building reprocessing facilities to take ash stored in basins and use it in concrete that could even be used to help rebuild after the flooding.

But the real purpose behind recent comments made by Perkins and others is to capitalize on this disaster and saddle North Carolinians with a one-size-fits-all plan to manage coal ash in the most extreme and expensive way possible while providing no extra protection for the environment.

Perkins is advocating that all coal ash basins be excavated, which requires trucks to dig up and move the material to lined landfills. Ironically, this is exactly what we are doing at Sutton, and the breach that he celebrates as some sort of malpractice occurred at the new, lined landfill that is under construction. This solution works well for some locations, but presents additional engineering challenges and decades of truck traffic in others — community considerations that an activist commentator can easily ignore. We can’t ignore these factors and we won’t as we work to safely close all ash basins across our system.

Managing the byproducts of the electricity we’ve generated over the decades to power our lives and businesses is complex. Contrary to the scare tactics activists have taken during a time of great struggle in our home of North Carolina, we apply rigorous scientific processes to our operations and are answerable to regulators to demonstrate our compliance and responsibility.

Duke Energy employees are as much members of the North Carolina community as those who choose to criticize us — we want safe water, reliable power and a cleaner energy future. We are working tirelessly to make that happen for the communities we serve, rain or shine.

Selim Bingol is Duke Energy Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer.
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