Posts Tagged ‘Electric Utilities’

Surprised? McCrory’s Coal Ash Proposal Falls Short

Saturday, April 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is catching flak for a proposal on coal ash that could derail state legislators’ efforts to reform regulation of the toxic waste during the upcoming legislative session.

According to the News & Observer, McCrory’s proposal calls for “site-specific closures.” Coal ash from some ponds could be moved, other ponds would be drained and capped but likely still threaten groundwater. In other words, basically what Duke Energy has already said it plans to do.

McCrory and John Skvarla, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, have been adamant that a one-size-fits-all approach to coal ash isn’t prudent, talking down a vocal public that believes the toxic waste should be moved from storage near waterways to safer, lined landfills.

On its face, the bill seems to signal progress, or at least make a bad situation a little bit better. For example, it would shorten the time in which Duke would have to notify the public of spills, from 48 hours to 24. OK, probably shouldn’t have been 48 hours to begin with, but we’ll take it.

Also, while the plan would not impose deadlines on Duke to address its leaky ash ponds, it would give Duke 60 days to 90 days after the plan’s passage to submit clean-up plans for ash ponds at the four plants with the most urgent pollution threats – Riverbend, Dan River, Sutton and Asheville.

Pat McCrory

Pat McCrory

But Duke already plans to remove ash from the retired Dan River plant, the site of the massive coal ash spill that reminded the public of the toxic legacy left even after coal plants are shuttered. And the company’s plans to repurpose ash from the Riverbend and Asheville plants as fill material at the Charlotte and Asheville airports are both moving forward.

So what’s the rub? After all, McCrory’s office says it still prefers that the ash be moved away from waterways. But that’s part of the problem. Leaving pond closure timelines and what to do with all that coal ash up to Duke hasn’t worked too well up to this point. The public is demanding clean water be protected, not half measures that leave people to throw their hands in the air and say “well, hopefully Duke Energy will do the right thing.”

Citizens and environmental groups sounding off about the ties between Duke, McCrory and DENR have every reason to be skeptical. DENR’s customer-first (read: industry-first) approach had people scratching their heads long before the Dan River spill in February. And early revelations of the federal criminal investigation that followed the spill only increased the lack of trust.

Perhaps to ease those concerns, Skvarla told the News & Observer that neither McCrory’s staff nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources consulted Duke about the proposal.

“This is our legislation, not Duke’s legislation,” said Skvarla. That’s reassuring, I suppose. But the fact that it needs to be clarified does not inspire confidence.

The governor’s proposal could also overshadow other legislation that would do more to get this big dirty ball of coal ash that’s settled in North Carolina rolling. State Sen. Tom Apodaca, a member of McCrory’s party who plans to sponsor a bill strengthening coal ash regulation, says McCrory gave legislators no advance notice of the plan.

“The governor doesn’t do legislation. The legislature does legislation,” Apodaca told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “He should have worked with the folks in the legislature to be on the same page getting legislation drafted.”

Apodaca says the plan he intends to introduce would go further.

“We’re going to mandate actual timeframes to close these (ponds), especially those that are near water sources. We’re determined to get rid of the wet ash pond at Asheville.”

Environmental groups including Appalachian Voices want the state to use its authority to move coal ash to landfills licensed to store hazardous waste. The type of waste that contains arsenic, lead, mercury, you know, coal ash. But the N.C. Environmental Management Commission recently sided with Duke Energy and also appealed the ruling that gave the state the authority to do just that.

Appalachian Voices North Carolina campaign coordinator, Amy Adams, pointed out similarities between the legislation and the controversial settlement DENR asked a judge to throw out after months of intense criticism.

“Entire sections were copied from the failed settlement between Duke and DENR, and pasted into McCrory’s plan,” Adams said. “It fails to provide any deadlines, doesn’t require moving of the ash at all locations, and provides no standards for newly generated coal ash. This proposal protects Duke Energy, not North Carolina’s citizens.”

Click here to tell your legislators to reject the governor’s proposal and pass legislation that will move the toxic ash to safe, lined storage away from waterways.

North Carolina sides with Duke Energy by appealing coal ash ruling

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
A coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Buck Power Plant. Photo by Les Stone / Greenpeace

A coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Buck Power Plant. Photo by Les Stone / Greenpeace

Why would the state ask a judge to take away its legal authority to stop groundwater pollution?

For years, North Carolina has known that Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds are illegally contaminating groundwater. Yet the state has not taken any action to force Duke to correct the violations.

In fact, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, the body that oversees the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and determines what DENR can enforce, determined two years ago that the state did not have the authority to make Duke clean up the source of its illegal pollution — coal ash ponds.

Last month, to the relief of concerned citizens and environmental groups, a superior court judge reversed the EMC’s prior decision, ruling that the state actually does have the legal authority to force Duke Energy to immediately clean up its coal ash ponds.

As expected, Duke Energy appealed the judge’s decision. Last week, however, in a move that surprised many, the EMC also appealed the judge’s decision. Why would the state ask a judge to take away it’s legal authority to stop groundwater pollution?

The answer likely has to do with who makes up the EMC and how they were appointed. A local Raleigh news station, WNCN, did some digging and found that at least eight of the fifteen EMC members have ties to Duke Energy or other major power companies. For example, the chairman, Benne Hutson, works for a law firm that has represented Duke Energy in court.

Given that the EMC is appointed by the Senate president pro tempore, the House speaker, and the governor — who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years — it’s not surprising that the commission has chosen to pander to corporate interests rather than adequately protect North Carolina’s water and its citizens health.

Central Appalachian-focused James River Coal Company enters bankruptcy

Friday, April 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia's most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties.

James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia’s most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties. Click to enlarge.

This week, James River Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. Like Patriot Coal, which reemerged from bankruptcy in December, the Richmond, Va.-based company’s operations are concentrated in Central Appalachia and are located in some of the counties most economically vulnerable to coal’s downturn.

According to a 2013 report by Downstream Strategies, eastern Kentucky’s Knott, Letcher, Pike, Bell, and Harlan counties are particularly vulnerable to shifting coal demand and changes in electricity markets, and therefore, require the most immediate attention from policymakers seeking to alleviate the economic impacts of the region’s declining coal industry.

James River has historically operated in all of those counties. But in September 2013, poor demand forced the company to lay off 525 employees and idle production at its McCoy-Elkhorn complex in Pike and Floyd counties and the Bledsoe complex in Leslie and Harlan counties.

Two months later, the struggling coal operator idled four more mines and furloughed 200 workers.

James River has not posted an annual net profit since 2010 and reported net loss of approximately $16.4 million in 2013. Investors expected the bankruptcy was imminent after the company recently received a notice from Nasdaq that it was not complying with the stock market’s rules after its stock closed below $1 per share for 30 business days.

In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The coal markets in the U.S. have changed dramatically during the past several years,” said James River Chairman and CEO Peter T. Socha. “Some of these changes are cyclical due to continued weakness in the real economy. Other of the changes are more permanent like changes in government environmental regulations, improved methods to produce natural gas, and switching between coal basins by domestic power utilities.”

A federal judge approved James River’s request to continue operations during its restructuring process, including paying wages and providing health care and other benefits to its 1,200 employees.

The company also appears committed to carrying out its contracts with electric utilities such as Indianapolis Power & Light, and Kentucky Utilities Co., which it supplies with coal from more productive mines in the Illinois Basin.

Either way, according to SNL Energy, James River’s chances for survival post-bankruptcy could be hindered by expiring contracts with electric utilities and the shrinking demand for Central Appalachian coal.

Rural Electric Co-ops Can Renew Community Spirit

Thursday, April 10th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }We occasionally invite a guest to “pull up a chair” and share their views on issues important to you. Today’s post is from Brian Depew, the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a group that works to establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship. This post, about how rural electric co-ops can renew community spirit, originally appeared on the Center for Rural Affairs’ clean energy blog.

I tore a page out of my rural electric co-op newsletter last fall. It is pinned it to my wall. I read it every day. It says, “Electric co-ops were constructed with lines, poles, and the foolhardy notion that we all prosper by helping each other.”

Brian Depew

Brian Depew

It’s so true. The cooperative spirit that brought electric service to rural America represents the community-driven values of small towns – values the Center works to uphold today.

More than 900 rural electric coops serve 42 million people in 47 states. Co-ops remain democratically controlled, run by elected customer-members. But the co-ops have drifted from their community-oriented mission.

Increasingly, they rely disproportionately on coal for generation. Seventy percent of the power co-ops deliver comes from burning coal. The number has fallen to 37 percent nationwide. The ironies are three-fold.

Cost: Electric co-ops serve 327, or 93 percent, of the nation’s 353 counties suffering the deepest and most persistent poverty.

These counties would benefit from affordable electric rates and the economic development potential of developing renewable resources. As the cost of coal has risen and the cost of renewables has fallen, co-ops have failed to respond.

As a result, co-op electric rates are now 9 percent higher than neighboring utilities. Nationwide 350 co-ops charge 15 percent more, and 175 co-ops charge 30 percent more.

Opportunity: Rural electric coops are in a tremendous position to create economic opportunity by investing in local energy. Co-ops serve 75 percent of the nation’s land area, including a vast majority of the best wind and solar resources in the country.

Developing these resources would represent a direct investment in their communities. Take one small example. Research shows that every two megawatts of wind energy installed creates one job and increases county-level personal income by $22,000.


Money spent in the community stays in the community. Creating a resilient energy industry that will last decades into the future is one of the easiest and smartest steps a community can take to tackle long-term economic challenges.

Democratic Control: The democratically elected board members of these co-ops are in an enviable position to jump start economic growth.

As we travel the country, we hear a consistent theme. Many of you want to invest in renewable resources. You want your co-ops to invest in community-based wind, and you want your co-ops to work with you (not against you) to invest in farm and home-based energy systems.

Repeated public polling bears out the anecdotes. Rural people support greater development of renewable energy sources. They are even willing to pay more for the initial investment.

Yet, there is a disconnect between what you want and what your democratically controlled co-op delivers.

Renewing Spirit: This is why it is time to renew the community spirit that built co-ops. I believe in the foolhardy notion that we all prosper by helping each other. I know you do to.

Eighty years ago that meant coming together to sink poles in the ground and string lines between them. Today it means reinvigorating the democratic control of our local co-ops and harnessing the power of local energy development.

It starts in my community and in your community. You can run for your local co-op board. If you are already on your co-op board, get in touch. We are networking like-minded board members from across the country.

If you are a customer-member of a co-op, pick up the phone and tell your elected board you envision a future where co-ops invest closer to home, creating local opportunity.

Together, we’ll put the public back in the driver’s seat of rural electric co-ops. Call us foolhardy, if you wish. But we are not the only ones.

Virginia Power Shifters intend to organize and win on climate

Thursday, April 10th, 2014 - posted by hannah

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Building up communities, empowering people to overcome oppression and standing up to polluters with grassroots strength: these were among the central themes of Virginia Power Shift, which took place at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond last weekend. Students worked tirelessly to involve campuses from all over the state, and delegations traveled from every corner of Virginia to join in the hard work (and, yes, also the play) that constitute this amazing young leaders’ summit.

An eye-opening and inspiring convergence of developing leaders and newly-born activists and loads of young reformers in between, the event showcased a movement on the rise, bringing social justice, climate and energy, pro-democracy and equality campaigns into one space to share skills and generate new approaches to problems.


Words don’t seem to capture the Power Shift ethic and attitude of heightened awareness and an open-minded way of caring for all people struggling for fairness and equity, but the picture above captures some of the substance and spirit of the weekend of learning and action.

Workshops given on the issues of the moment ranged from student debt to mountaintop removal mining, renewable energy to voter suppression, privilege and discrimination to corporate campaigning against greenwashing and unethical practices. Remarks by climate movement and environmental justice leaders like Energy Action Coalition’s Lillian Molina, Virginia New Majority’s Tram Nguyen, and the Hip Hop Caucus’ Reverend Lennox Yearwood capped off the conference on a high note.

The weekend of action and leadership is just the beginning of a redoubled effort to expand participation of students on campuses in the many organizing opportunities highlighted in Richmond, and in many other fights that this generation takes seriously.

Are you a student ready to engage in this powerful movement? Get with the active organizations on your campus, or check out the top-notch student coalition behind Power Shift 2014!

McAuliffe can pave the way for a cleaner future for Virginia

Thursday, April 10th, 2014 - posted by cat

{ Editor’s Note }This post ran as an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday, April 8 — the first day of the annual Environment Virginia Symposium, an environmental conference that brings together regulators, business people and entrepreneurs, elected officials, and citizen groups like Appalachian Voices.

In his keynote speech at the symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector, which would not only create jobs but also address climate change: “I believe humans contribute to climate change. I think it’s pretty much settled. I think the impacts are felt today.”

In his keynote address at the Environment Virginia Symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector.

In his keynote address at the Environment Virginia Symposium, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he plans to diversify Virginia’s economy by boosting the clean energy sector.

In almost every campaign speech, Terry McAuliffe told the story of how he started a driveway-paving business in his neighborhood when he was 14 to earn money to help pay for his college education. Now Virginia’s 47th governor, McAuliffe is clearly proud of the moral: Work hard, invest in your future and you’ll go far.

As Gov. McAuliffe begins to apply these values to his gubernatorial agenda, there’s no better place to start than by paving the way for a stronger, more equitable economy for all Virginians by investing in a 21st-century clean-energy sector for the commonwealth.

Wind and solar power and energy efficiency have not only proven to be cost-effective, they can provide long-term jobs throughout the state, stabilize energy costs for families and businesses and strengthen Virginia’s economy. As a first step, McAuliffe should require that all state-owned buildings in Virginia derive at least 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources, and direct his agencies to become 20 percent more energy efficient.

McAuliffe has numerous other options at his disposal to put forth a clear vision for clean energy and take concrete steps to fortify the clean-energy business sector here in Virginia.

Energy efficiency:

Increasing investments in energy efficiency programs could create nearly 10,000 jobs and save Virginians over $2.2 billion annually on their electric bills by 2025.* But Virginia is far from realizing this opportunity; in fact, we rank 36th nationally for energy efficiency.

Seven years ago, the General Assembly set a voluntary goal to cut energy use by a modest 10 percent by 2022 (from 2006 levels). The state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, are on track to meet just one-half and one-quarter of that goal, respectively. McAuliffe should press the utilities to invest in more ambitious energy-efficiency programs to benefit the economy, the public and the environment. He should also adopt improved statewide building code standards that could increase efficiency of new home construction by as much as 27 percent.

Solar power:

The solar industry is booming across the country — except in Virginia. Last year, the industry added 14,000 new jobs, while fossil fuel companies cut nearly 4,000 workers. North Carolina has installed enough solar to power more than 25,000 homes and is ranked third for solar installed in 2013 — much of which powers data centers. Virginia trails far behind, with not even enough solar to power 1,000 homes.

Virginia could catch up, or even surpass our neighbors. McAuliffe can jumpstart solar projects by discouraging penalties imposed by utilities on homeowners and businesses who install solar panels, and by supporting policies that allow all Virginians to easily finance solar installations on their homes and businesses.

Wind power:

Virginia has some of the strongest potential for offshore wind energy in the country and holds the first federal license in the mid-Atlantic region, with the potential to produce enough electricity to power 700,000 homes. Dominion holds the lease, but is currently planning to develop just a fraction of that potential, enough to power roughly 4,200 homes, by 2028. McAuliffe should urge Dominion to fully develop this resource, which could create 10,000 additional new jobs over the next 20 years.

Diversifying Southwest Virginia’s economy:

McAuliffe should take immediate and significant action to expand and diversify economic opportunities in Southwest Virginia, especially in communities where coal is mined. Investments in clean energy, tourism, education and manufacturing will help secure a stronger economic future for families that have unfairly suffered poisoned drinking water and streams, soot and dust in the air, severe health problems and other impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

McAuliffe can lead Virginia toward a stronger, healthier, economically just future by championing positive clean-energy policies like these. Our organizations stand ready to work with the governor, his staff and administration to help make that happen.
As a boy, Terry McAuliffe aimed high when he started his first business to invest in his future. He should do the same now for Virginia.

Cat McCue, communications director with Appalachian Voices, on behalf of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club of Virginia, Southern Environmental Law Center and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. Contact her at

* Information for this article was drawn largely from an August 2013 report, “Changing Course: A Clean Energy Investment Plan for Dominion Virginia Power, by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and Optimal Energy.

A Small (but important) Step: Appalachian Power’s New Energy Efficiency Proposal

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Appalachian Power Company recently announced two energy efficiency initiatives that will benefit ratepayers and the environment.

Appalachian Power Company recently announced two energy efficiency initiatives that will benefit ratepayers and the environment.

April began with a bright item of news in Virginia: Appalachian Power plans to begin providing energy efficiency programs for customers!

The proposal for which Appalachian Power is seeking approval from state regulators has a couple of parts, and the first is much-needed weatherization for low-income households.

According to the company’s news release, the program will serve rural inhabitants “who often have few resources or opportunity to invest in efficient homes or technology.” The intent is for local energy service companies weatherize homes and the program also includes distribution of compact fluorescent lightbulbs at area food banks.

This move befits a utility that wants to be a good neighbor; home weatherization assistance can help a family’s budget go farther, and it’s the kind of program that every utility should be expected to offer, especially in rural areas where it’s essential to relieve the burden of higher energy costs on residents.

Appalachian Power is also seeking approval for an A/C cycling program which would allow customers to opt in to a program to relieve demand on the grid during peak usage. These program typically work by installing a smart control on a home’s A/C unit that the utility can then control to turn off and on your unit during the hottest part of the day to reduce the amount of electricity that needs to be provided. The customer benefits by saving money on their electricity bill.

While utilities often try to market these types of programs as efficiency measures, it’s arguable whether that is accurate. Efficiency programs reduce overall energy consumption and therefore impact generation needs, whereas an A/C cycling program offers “peak shaving” which better distributes existing demand to eliminate the need to fire-up expensive coal plants during particularly hot parts of the day. The nuances of that can wait, but the bottom line is that both of the programs proposed by Appalachian Power Company are a step in the right direction and will benefit ratepayers.

Finally, if Appalachian Power sees the potential for cost-effectively balancing energy generation and demand through efficiency, it shouldn’t stop with these initial steps. Hopefully the company will soon be ready to take a bigger leap and offer a wider range of energy efficiency programs. With support from customers, Appalachian Power can be influenced to reduce wasted energy in a way that benefits families and the environment.

Be part of the effort to push for more robust energy efficiency programs from Appalachian Power.

Citizens Deliver Coal Ash Petition to Duke Energy

Friday, February 28th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices smiles as the crowd echoes her call for “No More Coal Ash!”

Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices smiles as the crowd echoes her call for “No More Coal Ash!”

Tuesday afternoon, more than 150 concerned citizens gathered at Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., to demand that the company take action to clean up its toxic coal ash. Coal ash, which is the byproduct of burning coal for electricity, is currently stored by Duke Energy in unlined, dangerous dams, next to vital waterways across the state.

The diverse crowd came together to deliver more than 9,000 petition signatures to Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good. The petition asks that Duke take full financial responsibility for cleaning up the devastating coal ash spill into the Dan River, and that the company agree to move the rest of its coal ash, stored in 31 ponds at 14 sites across the state, to dry,lined storage facilities away from rivers and lakes.

The event was the result of an amazing collaboration between a variety of environmental and social justice groups from the states affected by the Dan River spill — North Carolina and Virginia — as well as national interest groups. Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club collected petition signatures and planned the event along with Charlotte Environmental Action, Keeper of the Mountains, and NC Conservation Network. The official sponsors of the event also included We Love Mountain Island Lake, Democracy NC, Action NC, and NC WARN.

Chants about the importance of clean water and the dangers of coal ash opened the event. Citizens held signs with images of the massive coal ash ponds that plague North Carolina, some wore t-shirts describing the health effects of the different heavy metals found in coal ash, others carried banners and pickets, and a few drummers backed the chants.

The Green Grannies, a group of concerned women from Asheville, sang a few songs about coal ash and water, and the Reverend Nancy Hardy, from North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light said a prayer about peace and hope for change.

Amy Adams, the N.C. Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, gave a rousing speech emphasizing that the spill into the Dan River was completely preventable, and that Duke must be held accountable for the damage they have caused. Adams’ speech was received with cheers from the crowd, who eagerly echoed her call for “No More! No more coal ash in unlined ponds! No more leaks and seeps into our drinking water! No more stalling and no more excuses!”

Over 9,000 petition signatures collected by Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club asking Duke to clean up its coal ash.

Over 9,000 petition signatures collected by Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club asking Duke to clean up its coal ash.

Sara Behnke, a mother, cancer survivor, and founder of We Love Mountain Island Lake, followed Adams with a wonderful speech about her family’s experience living next to Duke’s coal ash ponds at the Riverbend Steam Station. Behnke expressed outrage that Duke’s coal ash ponds are leaking arsenic-laden water into Mountain Island Lake which supplies the drinking water for 860,000 people. Behnke drew connections between the recent chemical spill in West Virginia and the similar threat that coal ash poses to drinking water.

Following Behnke’s speech, Elise Keaton from the West Virginia Keeper of the Mountains expressed solidarity for the need for clean water in both states. Luis Rodriguez from Action NC followed by calling on Duke to pay for the Dan River cleanup without raising customers rates. Rodriguez was joined by Cora Little, a senior member of Action NC who has spoken out against Duke’s recent rate hikes.

The final event speaker was Mary Anne Hitt, the director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Hitt reiterated the need to protect North Carolina’s waterways from further coal ash pollution. She was joined by Amy and Cora to present two thick binders full of thousands of petition signatures to Duke security guards.

Although a Duke Energy representative had previously given the group permission to send three representatives into the building, a few minutes before Hitt’s speech concluded, security notified the crowd that Duke would not accept the petitions and that no one was allowed inside the company’s office.

In response, the crowd began circling in front of Duke Energy’s headquarters, chanting “Hear the voice of the people, accept the petitions now!” After about twenty minutes, as the group was beginning to disband, Hitt was about to leave the petition notebooks on the public side of the sidewalk in front of the company building, when a Duke Energy representative ran out and took the petitions inside.

While Duke Energy may have accepted the complaints of more than 9,000 people, concerned citizens, environmental groups, and social justice groups promise to be back with the same message: Duke Energy — clean up your toxic coal ash!

Preventable Spills Yield Predictable Apologies

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 - posted by brian
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

At the gates of Freedom Industries, just a few hundred feet from the shoddy chemical storage tank on the banks of the Elk River that started it all, Gary Southern approached a cluster of microphones. As Freedom Industries’ president, he was about to become the face of a catastrophic chemical spill that threatened the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands West Virginians.

“This incident is extremely unfortunate and unanticipated,” Southern said. “We are very sorry for the disruption.”

But it was too late. For what could be weeks or longer — it was anyone’s guess — 300,000 people would be without safe tap water. Businesses and schools closed. Families waited for reassuring news, but practically every piece of expert advice came with a disclaimer and was of little consolation.

Less than a month later, on Feb. 2, a corroded storm water pipe running under a coal ash pond near Eden, N.C., gave way, spilling an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River. Inspectors from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources were sent to the investigate the spill, and Paul Newton, president of Duke Energy’s North Carolina operations, was dispatched to downstream communities with his hat in hand.

“We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river,” Newton told impacted residents. “We are accountable.”

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the mayor of Danville, Va., just downstream from the site of the spill, to apologize. And the Associated Press signified how trivial it all can seem with the headline “Polluting N.C. utility says it’s sorry.”

As the cornerstone of crisis P.R., the short-order apology is to be expected. But without action, apologies aren’t meaningful. They aren’t effective cover-ups or remedies, they’re a reflex, a stalling tactic, and a reminder of past offenses.

Before the Dan River spill, for example, Duke Energy had for years accused environmental groups and citizens of crying wolf on the problem of coal ash pollution. So when the Charlotte Business Journal asked readers what grade Duke Energy deserves for its handling of the Dan River coal ash spill, it’s not surprising that 60 percent thought an “F” only fair.

“Apologies can and should be hugely important actions and mechanisms, blessed with enormous power and lasting impact,” Dov Seidman, a consultant focused on corporate values and culture, recently wrote. “But they must be two-way exchanges of trust and healing that are open and transparent.”

According to Seidman, no matter the scale or situation, a few essential criteria must be met for an apology to be authentic: It must be painful. It cannot serve as an excuse or a means to an end. It must force offenders to conduct a “moral audit” of personal and organizational values. And it must embrace ideas as to how to improve.

But perhaps most importantly, to achieve positive change in the wake of environmental disasters that cannot be reversed, an authentic apology must turn true regret into a behavioral shift followed by a continuous investment to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“Bad apologies drive out good,” claims Seidman, “so that those who take their apologies seriously, and work tirelessly to live up to them, are dismissed along with the drivel.”

Not only had Freedom Industries failed to report the spill when it was discovered, it was later revealed the company kept its knowledge of a second chemical a secret. More recently, the disgraced company’s bankruptcy has given new meaning to “conflict of interest,” and Gary Southern stood up the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which invited him to testify on the spill.

So, at least thus far, every indication is that Southern’s apology was one of the bad ones. But it should also be noted that Freedom Industries’ ability to deal with crises was dwarfed by the crisis it created — the company had no emergency response plan, and its initial effort to stop the leak consisted of a cinder block and a 50-pound bag of safety absorbent powder. Now facing dozens of lawsuits, Freedom Industries is momentarily shielded as it goes through bankruptcy.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy has to own up to the reality that it has deserved an “F” on its coal ash report card all along — despite former CEO Jim Rogers’ statement that his company would “ultimately end up cleaning up all that.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office has opened a federal criminal investigation into Duke Energy and officials in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, Duke has begun dredging the Dan River. Some residents that live around Charleston have returned to using their water — others may never trust it. But in the weeks and months ahead, as these spills begin to fade from the media and from the daily conversations in communities surrounding the spills, we should remember all the acceptances of accountability, the promises to do better.

Will the coal industry and companies like Freedom Industries that support it stop pushing for reduced oversight? Will Duke Energy take the necessary steps to protect human and environmental health by moving its coal ash away from North Carolina’s waterways? Only then should we decide whether their apologies are authentic or worth accepting.

Powering Our Communities as an Olympic Event and Utilities as the Competitors

Friday, February 21st, 2014 - posted by hannah


Our plans and achievements can always be measured against our past performance and our potential. Take Olympic figure skating: the judges might remark, “That’s the best she’s ever skated!” or “He would have to beat his personal best by twelve points to medal.”

But what about assessing how an electrical utility performs? If utilities were athletes, we might see ourselves as their fans, their sponsors paying our monthly bills, and even as their coaches, pushing for specific areas of improvement like investing in efficiency and renewable sources.

Appalachian Power Company, for example, currently generates more than 80 percent of its power from coal. The company has built no large scale renewable energy to date, and does not offer any efficiency program for customers to reduce their energy consumption. To earn a spot on the medal podium for clean energy, the company needs to make serious changes to its long-term plans. Like an old athlete learning new tricks, the Old Dominion has an opportunity to score big points with our abundant renewable energy sources.

The challenge for utilities in Virginia is not simply to plan to power their territory for the next fifteen or more years by whatever means is cheapest on paper today. But, like a skier on her way down a mountain, utilities need to prepare for the sharp turns and rough terrain ahead.

In our energy system this translates to federal regulations that will impact the cost of operating fossil-fuel-burning power plants and will make investing in renewables and energy efficiency even smarter choices for meeting future demand. And regardless of federal-level action, spikes in coal and natural gas prices mean that utilities should hedge against those energy sources by branching out into renewables and efficiency programs in order to protect customers from increases on their bills.

Utility customers can stand up and say we won’t applaud a business-as-usual, go-through-the-motions approach. We can cheer Appalachian Power on to live up to our hopes for energy that’s healthier for our communities and reliable and affordable for customers.

Urge Appalachian Power Company to invest in renewables and efficiency. Send your message now in less than the time is takes a two-man bobsled team to win the race for gold (56.25 seconds).