Duke Energy and several plaintiffs have reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over allegedly predatory contracts for permanent water supplies. The court dismissed the case, filed in Wake County Superior Court, yesterday.
As Policy Watch reported last August, Salisbury-based attorney Mona Lisa Wallace filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of neighbors of coal ash basins against Duke Energy over the contract language. Under the terms, Duke would cover the households’ water-related expenses for 25 years, plus a $5,000 payout; but in return, the households had to absolve the company from past, present or future liability related to the nearby coal ash ponds.
By accepting the money, the residents were agreeing that Duke had fully compensated them for their past or future harm or loss.
In other words, residents who sign the contract couldn’t sue Duke if they or family members are later diagnosed with cancer or other diseases caused by exposure to coal ash. If a basin spill occurred and their homes were destroyed, the residents could not sue the utility for damages. Those restrictions also applied to the families’ future heirs.
Many of the settlement terms are confidential. In a short statement, Amy Brown, who lives in Belmont near the Allen plant, said the new contracts do not apply to future heirs. The contracts no longer contain provisions that would have forced neighbors to agree Duke had fully compensated them for harm or loss.
Under the Coal Ash Management Act and its 2016 amendment, Duke Energy is required to pay for a “permanent water supply” for households whose wells contain the same contaminants found in coal ash: hexavalent chromium, vanadium and arsenic, for example. But there was no requirement, Duke said, that it cover the monthly water bills or maintenance for full-house filtration systems..
Eligible households didn’t have to sign in order to get a permanent water supply. However, they would have to pay their own monthly water bills or for maintenance of the filtration system.
Paige Sheehan, Duke spokeswoman, said that as the utility representatives spoke with residents, “we realized there was misinformation and confusion, so we educated them and clarified what is and is not included in the release. We did not change the offering made to them or all eligible neighbors, but we are pleased that through education a lawsuit without merit was dismissed. Now we can continue to focus on providing permanent water solutions to our plant neighbors.”
Duke updated information on its website about the voluntary financial packages. Children and tenants of the affected properties can still seek damages if they develop health problems related to contaminated groundwater; the property owners themselves, though, are prohibited from suing. Well owners can still sue the utility over damages related to air quality and future spills or breaches.