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AP Interview: Duke CEO says utility avoiding LGBT law fight

Posted September 15

— Duke Energy Corp. aims to stay out of the fight over North Carolina's law limiting protections for LGBT people, the company's CEO said, noting the company is heavily regulated by the state.

"I'm in a regulated industry with responsibility for keeping the lights on, and my focus is there and attracting a workforce that makes us better, and that's a diverse workforce," CEO Lynn Good told The Associated Press.

However, Good also said that while the largest electricity company in the U.S. focuses on legislation involving energy, she would like to see state leaders revisit the law.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for nearly 30 years, staunchly supports the law. He has appointed four of the seven members of the commission that regulates the company's operations in North Carolina and sets its electric rates. Those members must be confirmed by the GOP-led Legislature.

The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference this week decided to withdraw championship competitions from North Carolina because they said the law allows discrimination against LGBT people. The law excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections. It also requires that transgender people use restrooms in schools and state government buildings corresponding to their gender at birth.

More than 100 companies — including Charlotte neighbor Bank of America and tech giant IBM, which employs tens of thousands at its Research Triangle Park hub — have condemned the law. PayPal and Deutsche Bank said they revised plans to add hundreds of jobs in the state. But Duke Energy, 115 on this year's Fortune 500 list, has stayed out of what has become a new front in the American culture war.

Good, who became CEO in 2013, has spent more than two years coping with fallout from the country's third-worst spill of toxic coal ash from one of the company's holding basins. The February 2014 spill fouled 70 miles (about 110 kilometers) of the Dan River along the Virginia-North Carolina line with the residue left after coal is burned for electricity.

Months later, North Carolina became the first state to require the removal or permanent dry storage of coal ash, which contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Utilities elsewhere also are moving coal ash pits.

"It's not a Duke Energy issue, it's an industry-wide issue. For a country that chose to burn coal for 50 or 60 years, there's a byproduct. It's no one's surprise," Good said when asked whether the utility's reputation has been damaged by fears of coal ash polluting drinking water.

Duke Energy pleaded guilty to federal pollution crimes related to the Dan River spill last year and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution. Environmentalists have sued the company, saying coal ash continues to pollute water supplies. The company says it's not contaminating groundwater and rivers and obeys all pollution laws.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said this week that tests of river water near a Duke coal ash site showed arsenic at levels four times higher than safety standards. But company spokeswoman Erin Culbert said Thursday that is misleading because the samples were taken where the arsenic enters the river, as permitted by regulators.

Duke says it is doing its share to clean up. It supported a change in state law requiring it to pay for municipal or filtered water for people near coal plants who were warned last year that well water was too risky to drink. The utility also at one point agreed with environmental lawyers who wanted Duke to excavate more coal ash pits than required by law, a move opposed by state regulators.

But critics fail to account for the environmental cost of digging up and transporting coal ash to new storage sites, Good said Wednesday evening before a local chamber of commerce banquet.

"Where we believe we cannot safely store it (coal ash)," Good said, "we are going to excavate it. But if we believe we can store it safely in place and monitor it, we believe that's an option that should be available."

Duke Energy has 7.4 million retail electric customers, representing about 24 million people, in North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Florida.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio.

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