CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke Energy is cleaning up its massive coal ash spill in the Dan River at no charge to ratepayers. But Duke executives have made clear to both lawmakers and the public that the Charlotte-based utility plans to ask the North Carolina Public Utility Commission to pass along the costs of cleaning up dozens of other coal ash dumps to customers.
But in neighboring South Carolina, both SCE&G and Santee Cooper have already launched significant coal ash cleanups without turning to customers for a rate hike. And both South Carolina-based electric utilities are using cleanup methods pushed by environmentalists in court and resisted by Duke.
“It’s best for our customers-- taking care of an issue that would be here for many years to come,” said Santee Cooper VP Tom Kierspe.
Santee Cooper has dried out coal ash ponds, the same kind of dumps that spilled into the Dan River, and is sifting tons of gray ash to truck it off site to be refined and reused in concrete. Santee Cooper has described the effort as a “win-win-win” since it will restore the low country ponds as natural wetlands, provide jobs to local communities and produce a product useful in construction.
Duke has resisted a “one size fits all” approach for its coal ash dumps, saying they are each unique and vary greatly in size, from 1.2 million tons at Dan River to 22 million tons at the Marshall coal-fired steam station on Lake Norman.
“If you dig it all up then that adds another four to five billion dollars to the cost,” Duke’s North Carolina President Paul Newton told a group of lawmakers last week.
Duke has about 10-times the volume of coal ash than Santee Cooper – more than 100 million tons. So a company spokesman says it’s unfair to compare Duke to the smaller South Carolina companies.
After I quoted Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman last week saying the SC cleanups had “no impact” on SC ratepayers, Duke Spokesman Dave Scanzoni emailed me to say, “Your story did not differentiate between various degrees of impact. The story said ‘no impact’ - erroneously implying to your viewers there was no cost to ratepayers. The story warrants correction for this factual error“.
“There has been no impact on rates,” said Holleman. “I’d stick by that statement.”
A spokeswoman for SCANA, which operates SCE&G, Cathy Love, emailed me to say, “Ash pond closure costs are already contemplated in rates charged to customers. In the event actual closure costs exceed amounts SCE&G has already collected, then SCE&G would seek recovery of any unrecovered costs from customers in the future. “
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the state-owned producer of electricity had built in the cost of coal plant closures into earlier rates and did not foresee rate hikes based on $250 million in projected costs spread out over 20 years.
On behalf of the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Riverkeepers Alliance, Frank Holleman sued both SCE&G and Santee Cooper over coal ash disposal methods, resulting in settlements in which the utilities agreed to dig up the coal ash and remove it from beside waterways.
“Through our litigation, they changed how they were going to close,” said Holleman. “A different, safer way of storage has had no impact on rates.”