RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A string of decisions by North Carolina regulators means electricity consumers could be seeing a multibillion-dollar bill to clean up mountains of waste Duke Energy created by spending decades burning coal to produce power.
State utilities regulators late last month decided both North Carolina divisions of the country’s No. 2 power company could charge ratepayers the first $778 million chunk of a cleanup projected to cost about $5 billion.
Cleanup became a priority after a major leak from a Duke Energy site in 2014 left coal ash coating 70 miles of the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border. The waste byproduct contains toxic metals like lead, mercury and arsenic.
The company pleaded guilty to federal environmental crimes in 2015 for its coal ash handling, and thus admitted “pervasive, system-wide shortcomings,” the North Carolina Utilities Commission said in its ruling last month.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said he’s going to court to try stopping Duke Energy from passing along its costs to excavate some ash pits and cover others. Corporate mismanagement increased costs that shareholders should also be forced to bear, he said in an interview. Duke Energy said it followed industry practices and applicable regulations.
“This case will ultimately be decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Stein said.
A decision by the state’s highest court isn’t likely before next year, when 3.4 million North Carolina power customers finally learn if they’re on the hook for a bill that’s been accumulating for decades.
Decisions by the North Carolina Utilities Commission last month and in February largely agreed with Duke Energy’s argument that consumers should pay for cleanup as part of the bill for the affordable, consistent electricity that burning coal had long provided.
It marks one of the commission’s most controversial regulatory decisions of recent years. But the precedent for passing on coal ash costs was set last year prior to the Duke Energy decisions in a case involving Virginia-based Dominion Energy, which serves North Carolina’s northeast corner, said Don Bailey, who served four years on the commission ending last year.