5 may 2016

Coal protestors disrupt Duke Energy’s shareholder meeting

John Downey Senior Staff Writer Charlotte Business Journal, mAY 5, 2016

Anti-coal groups dominated an emotional Duke Energy shareholders meeting that included organized protesters interrupting the proceedings from inside and a Belmont woman breaking down as she described her family’s fear of drinking well water near the Riverbend coal plant.

Some basic corporate business got done. The board nominees were elected. Shareholders approved a proposal calling on Duke to allow changes to its Certificate of Incorporation that now requires a super-majority vote be decided by a simple majority. They rejected a proposal to require Duke to disclose how its spends its lobbying money and what advocacy groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, Duke belongs to.

But most of what was said in the meeting mirrored, in a less flamboyant manner, what was said by protesters outside. The outside demonstrations included a “mock marriage” between Duke CEO Lynn Good and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, contending the state and the power company are in cahoots to profit at the expense of the environment and the health of citizens.

'Strong feeling'

The protests inside started almost as soon as Good called the meeting to order. As she was discussing the agenda for shareholders, an older man in the audience stood up and asked her to address the “strong feeling that Duke Energy’s policies and business plan are corrupting our state and threatening the health of our children.”

As he spoke, he was led out of the auditorium where the meeting was held. But three more times in the next 10 minutes, individual protesters interrupted, saying “I beg you to protect the environment,” “Stop blocking rooftop solar” and “Duke Energy is destroying the planet.”

Duke allowed no cameras or recording equipment inside the auditorium at Duke's Church Street building, where the meeting was held. So all pictures from the event were of the protests outside.

Good defends

The disruption tactic was similar to one used by the environmental group N.C. Power Forward in February to disrupt a meeting of the N.C. Utilities Commission on Duke’s proposed 560-megawatt Asheville natural gas plant.

Power Forward was one of nine environmental groups involved in the protests inside and outside the shareholder meeting, says Monica Embrey, whose own group, Greenpeace, also helped organize the protests.

Good, as she responded to the protests inside, said she was proud of Duke’s environmental record. It was a line she would repeat again and again during the hour-long question-and-answer session that followed the half-hour business meeting.

Nine of the 12 questioners who got to speak attacked Duke’s record on renewables and its continued use of coal and natural gas.

'Dash for profit'

Duke’s coal-ash ponds came up several times. Amy Brown of Belmont had to pause to compose herself as she started to weep describing how her family has relied on bottled water for fear that contamination from ash ponds at Riverbend had seeped into their well.

“My home is surrounded on three sides by your ash basins,” she said. “My three-month-old child doesn’t get to enjoy a bubble bath and his water toys for his mother’s fear of letting him in the water."

Others complained that state recommendations earlier this year that Duke not drink from their wells destroyed their home property values. Richard Fireman, of the Alliance for Energy Democracy, said Duke must stop the “mad dash for profit” and stop using fossil fuels to address climate change issues.

John Gurley, of Goldsboro, accused coal-ash contaminants from the H.F. Lee plant caused cancers in his neighborhood and “gave me sugar diabetes.”

Clear conscience

Good sympathized with those who said that family members had died or faced health problems. But she repeated that tests performed by Duke and state regulators indicate that no coal contaminants have leaked into residential wells and that Duke did not know of “any evidence linking our (ash) basins to any health effects,” — a statement, which each time was met with disapproving murmurs from some in the crowd.

Good said Duke has cut carbon emissions by 28% since 2005. It continues to build solar projects and replace coal plants with natural gas to reduce emissions further.

When Charlotte resident David Harmon asked her what she would say to future generations who asked “why you didn’t do more when you could” about pollution and global warming, she responded: “My conscience is clear. We are doing everything we can.”

She gave some answer to every questioner and often referred them to Duke experts — many of them in the room — for additional information.

“There’s a lot of emotion in the room,” she acknowledged when the hour concluded.

John Downey covers the energy industry and public companies for the Charlotte Business Journal.

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