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Last public hearing on Duke Energy rate hike brings out protesters

Protesters criticized the utility company for asking customers to pay to clean up coal ash sites. Organizers told Duke Energy to pay for its own mess.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A heated debate over a price hike on your utility bill spilled into the streets of Charlotte Tuesday.

Protesters rallied against Duke Energy’s plan to raise rates by nearly $20 per bill on average. The rally happened in uptown just before the final public hearing in front of the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Protesters criticized the utility company for asking customers to pay to clean up coal ash sites. Organizers told Duke Energy to pay for its own mess.

“What we’re saying is you pay for it, you made the mess, you clean it up,” said Luiz Rodriguez with the Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club.

The roughly 17% increase would, in part pay, to clean up coal ash sites.

“Duke Energy dumped coal ash waste in unlined pits for years and years, and now they want the public instead of their shareholders to pay for that,” said Rodriguez.

On Tuesday night, there was the final in a series of public hearings inside the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. It included public comments, questions and answers and a presentation from Duke Energy’s district manager. The utility company said it has followed regulations throughout the years.

VIDEO: Coal ash controversy: Families rely on bottled water for 1,000 days

“The way to manage that ash up until the regulations changed was to store it in the ponds,” said Paige Layne, a Duke Energy spokeswoman.

NBC Charlotte asked Duke Energy why they’re asking customers to pay for the cleanup.

“All customers benefited from the use of that coal,” Layne responded.

The price hike would raise a customer’s bill by between $18 and $19 on average. Duke Energy told NBC Charlotte the additional revenue would also pay for greener technology in the future.

“We’ve brought along two new solar facilities as well as a natural gas facility, it includes technology on our grid,” said Layne.

The utility company requested the rate hike to begin in April. Another hearing is scheduled in Raleigh next month, but public comments will not be allowed.

“It’s the last chance for the public to weigh in and say they oppose this rate hike,” said Rodriguez.

The public hearing in Charlotte was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and expected to last about an hour and a half.