Duke Energy, recently in the news for announcing their plans to build additional solar farms, adding to their already existing 150+ MW of installed solar, was in the news for a less cheery reason yesterday afternoon. They plead guilty to a total of nine environmental charges, and agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution. The charges were first pressed in February, following an already started plea bargain, in response to illegal dumping of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina. According to ThinkProgress, Duke Energy had a storage pond which leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash in the river. This manifested into a gray sludge containing toxins such as arsenic, selenium, chromium, mercury, and lead, which coated approximately 70 miles of the river.
The ultimate ruling in this case is seen as a victory by many environmental groups, who have been working to see this environmental damage stopped and repaired for quite some time. In a press release issued by Duke Energy yesterday, Duke listed a litany of proactive efforts that have been put in place to prevent this issue from happening again. They are professing the close of an unfortunate chapter and promising to move forward in a different direction, which is honorable.
A big take-away from this whole situation, is how Duke Energy’s PR team chose to handle the ruling. Their press release has an appropriate level of “mea culpa” and they do seem to be taking responsibility for their actions. Instead of fighting the charges, they employed the ever effective “yes now let’s focus on something positive” method, acknowledging the issue and then discussing the wonderful things they are going to do moving forward. PR 101.
The only thing missing here, and this is significant, is a statement on how Duke will be undoing any damage done to people and communities who have been affected by this environmental issue, as well as repair and cleanup of the river. What is the current state of Dan River? Will Duke be cleaning it? Did they already? These questions should have been addressed yesterday as well.
On a non-PR note, I can’t help but think that this could have been avoided in the first place. After all, a “Solar Spill” or “Sunshine Leak” just means we’re having lovely weather! Harmful environmental disasters such as this underline the continued importance of developing less dependency on traditional power generation methods and more renewable, clean options.