Raleigh, N.C. — A group of homeowners living near coal ash ponds across the state filed a class-action lawsuit against Duke Energy on Wednesday, arguing the company is requiring nearby residents to agree to "unfair, deceptive and unconscionable" terms in return for permanent drinking water sources required by the state.
The lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, seeks a court mandate to drop language from a financial offer from Duke that would prevent homeowners from suing in the future. It also accuses the energy giant of unfair and deceptive trade practices and negligent management of the waste pits, which store the byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Coal ash is laced with heavy metals and other toxic substances.
Deborah Graham, a resident near one of the coal ash ponds located outside of Salisbury, is one of nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which collectively represents every homeowner who received offers of "goodwill financial supplements" from Duke. Those supplements included $5,000 to support "the transition to a new water supply," cash to cover 25 years of water bills and other monetary incentives.
But Graham said the strings attached to the agreement are unacceptable, and her neighbors near the Dukeville plant and across the state have refused to sign.
"Duke wants to say they're good neighbors," Graham said. "What neighbors do you know want you to sign away your rights?"
Users of drinking water wells near the unlined ash pits have been using bottled water supplied by Duke for more than two years after concerns emerged over the safety of their well water. A state law signed last year requires the Charlotte-based company to pay to extend drinking water lines to nearby homeowners or provide them with advanced filtration systems by October 2018.
Cathy Cralle Jones, one of the attorneys representing the homeowners, says they'll make the argument in court that, as a public utility, Duke cannot require residents in this case to sign agreements releasing the company from future claims.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Duke Energy spokesperon Jeff Brooks called the suit "another effort by trial lawyers to make money for themselves when the company is already doing more than anyone to care for our plant neighbors."
"Neighbors are welcome to accept the financial package or not. If they accept the package, it is customary to sign a waiver, closing out the issue once and for all. But it is entirely up to them and them alone," Brooks said in the statement. "Regardless of whether they accept the voluntary package, the will still receive the permanent new water supply.
The company continues to deny the coal ash ponds are connected with elevated levels of toxic contaminants found in nearby wells, including a carcinogenic compound called hexavalent chromium. A recent academic study has lent some support to that claim, although state environmental regulators are still trying to sort out whether the contamination comes from natural sources.
Yet, Duke has also faced heavy fines and pleaded guilty to violations of the federal Clean Water Act over leaks at the pits in the wake of a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River near Eden.
Over the last several years, homeowners have received conflicting information about the safety of their water from state officials, which in some cases reversed course twice in their guidance to residents. Those inconsistencies became a campaign attack line, with then-Attorney General Roy Cooper criticizing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory over his handling of the issue.
But those same inconsistencies resurfaced again last month as the state Department of Environmental Quality – this time under now-Gov. Cooper – issued requirements for the filtering systems Duke must pay to install in the homes of people near coal ash ponds who aren't receiving hookups to public water supplies. DEQ regulators set much less strict standards for those filters than recommended by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, who voiced their concerns in a memo.
After those concerns were made public, DEQ instructed Duke to re-examine options for supplying permanent water sources instead of filters and announced it would convene a Science Advisory Board to set standards for many of the contaminants that have long raised questions for neighbors near the waste ponds.
Graham said that, although Cooper inherited the coal ash problem, she wants his administration to take responsibility for fixing it.
"This was dumped in our laps two years ago, and it was never settled," Graham said. "I'm asking the governor not to Band-Aid this."