CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Duke Energy's chief executive on Thursday touted the company's accomplishments over the past year, but some shareholders focused on a massive coal ash spill that coated 70-miles of a North Carolina River in toxic sludge.
Outside Duke's headquarters, where investors gathered for the annual shareholders meeting, about 200 protesters criticized the spill, and the way the $50 billion company has handled the coal ash issue.
Duke has 14-coal fired plants with 33 ash pits spread across the state.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, told the protesters many of the pits are located in rural areas around minority communities.
"Duke is trying to say they have made a mess and now the people have to clean it up. What we're saying is they ought to clean it up," Barber said.
The shareholders meeting came nearly three months after the Feb. 2 spill that polluted the Dan River.
Duke CEO Lynn Good told shareholders that the company had a profitable year, and was working hard to protect the environment. She said Duke had reduced emissions at its coal-fired plants.
She said the company takes responsibility for the spill and "will do the right thing."
"Dan River was an accident," she said.
She also said the company is developing a plan to handle its ash pits.
"The long-term plan will be based on science and fact and engineering. We are committed to getting it right," she said.
Then she took questions from shareholders, subject to some ground rules. Each investor had two minutes to speak. A buzzer reminded shareholders when their time was up.
Sixteen people spoke before the company cut off questions. Many criticized Duke for the spill, for not cleaning up coal ash pits and for failing to deal with climate change issues.
Kemp Burdette, the Camp Fear Riverkeeper, said he disagreed that Duke had a good year. Besides the coal ash spill, he said the company was accused by the state of pumping 61 million gallons of contaminated water into the Cape Fear River. He said coal ash pollution from the company's Sutton plant near threatened the drinking water of a Wilmington-area community.
Burdette noted that despite the problems, Good was receiving a $1.1 million bonus and a raise. He said her pay should be linked to performance.
Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper, called the company's new advertising campaign misleading. He said Duke wants to portray an image of a good neighbor, while its ash pits are "poisoning your neighbors' drinking wells."
Donna Lisenby, global coal campaign coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said coal ash contains toxic chemicals including arsenic, chromium, selenium, and thallium. Then she invited Good to join her for a canoe trip on the Catawba River for a first-hand look at coal ash pollution. There are coal ash pits along the river — the main source of drinking water for North Carolina's largest city.
Good said she would think about it. Lisenby then walked to the front of the auditorium and put out her hand. "Can we shake on that?" Lisenby asked.
Good shook Lisenby's hand.
Earlier, a coalition of 21 large institutional investors expressed disappointment that two proposals failed, including one that would have forced Duke to fully disclose its political contributions. The coalition also had pressed Duke's board to launch an independent investigation of the spill.
Coalition members said they introduced the measure because they worried Duke's coal ash issues pose a "potential risk to shareholder value."
Bill Dempsey, senior vice president of finance at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, said the coalition wrote to Duke's board in March, saying its confidence has been shaken by the spill. Two weeks ago, the foundation received a letter saying Duke's board would not launch an investigation.
Duke said in a recent regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it had spent $15 million so far plugging the collapsed pipe at its Eden power plant that triggered the Dan River spill. The company has also begun trying to dredge some of the spilled ash from the river.
Duke said it can't yet assess what costs may result from new laws affecting how the company handles the ash at its coal ash dumps in North Carolina, or from future legal claims, litigation or environmental fines.
Federal prosecutors have issued at least 23 subpoenas as part of a widening criminal probe triggered by the spill. They are looking at whether the company received preferential treatment from the state environmental agency.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has made a proposal he said would strengthen government oversight of the state's coal ash dumps. But the governor's plan didn't address what will happen to Duke's ash pits.
McCrory, who worked at Duke for more than 28 years before retiring to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2008, said his plan would result in the "conversion or closure" of the dumps and close legal loopholes that allowed Duke to avoid cleaning up groundwater contamination leaching from unlined ash pits.
All of Duke's ash pits are along the state's rivers and lakes — and the governor's plan doesn't force the company to move them.
Instead, his plan allows Duke to study the issue and set a timetable for how to eventually close the waste dumps.
Environmentalists have sharply criticized McCrory's plan, saying it doesn't go far enough.
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