ROCKINGHAM — Members of the North Carolina Utilities Commission sat in Courtroom A of the old courthouse downtown Tuesday to listen to concerned Duke Energy customers of Richmond and surrounding counties in regards to the company’s proposed 14.9 percent rate increase.
The potential increase, which would be seen in customer’s electric bills, didn’t seem to sit well with those attending who voiced their opinions under sworn testimony.
Tom Clark, of Wagram, first spoke about Duke Energy being a huge polluter in the past and said what many would later comment on — it’s not the customers’ obligations to pay for the company’s mistakes.
“It’s real easy to give money away when it’s not your money,” Clark said, referring to Duke representative David McNeill’s prior comments about the company’s spending on local charities. “If you’re gonna make the money, then suck it up and solve that problem.”
The problem Clark is referencing to is what’s been done with past coal ash spills in the state. According to the Associated Press, Duke Energy wants an extra $477 million a year, with an 11 percent return on a measure commonly described as potential profit margin.
The schedule included the Richmond County meeting along with ones in Raleigh, Asheville, Snow Hill and Wilmington.
Meredith Archie, spokesperson with Duke Energy’s corporate communications, said that the rate increase would not be to used to help with the clean-up of the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014.
“One thing that’s not included and we have never asked our customers to pay for is the Dan River coal ash spill,” said Archie. “What is included is past costs for our safe management of our coal ash basin.”
That, perhaps, was still not good enough for those in attendance.
Lois Jones, a Hamlet resident and Duke customer for more than 30 years asked the Utilities Commission to consider doing away with the rate increase, saying the burden always falls on the people of the community.
“We have to eat, and we have to have lights, but I’ve been following the coal ash thing for years. It’s always denial at first, and then the next thing it’s a full-blown problem that no one knew about,” Jones said. “It has to come to a point where the company is gonna have to think about the shareholders and the customers. If these companies never pay for these mistakes that they are knowingly making then that’s a lot. Eighteen dollars a month (increase) might not sound like a lot, but to a lot of people, that’s a lot. I think it’s unfair.”
Lee County resident Keely Wood asked the commission why, if Duke Energy’s own insurance company wouldn’t pay for the clean-up, then why should its customers.
Another concerened Richmond County resident, Tavares Bostic, said large companies look at the people of the county as merely dollars and cents, and because of that, something like coal ash doesn’t matter.
“You think about fixed incomes, you think about single-parent households. There’s places in this county that can’t even get water,” said Bostic. “Something like this happens that has everyone in an uproar. This thing stretches over even if you’re not a Duke Energy customer. We ate the steak but you guys have to pay for it. It’s just not fair.”
Representing those older residents on fixed incomes and the North Carolina AARP’s Piedmont region, John Merrell said he’s spent a lot of time in local government and gives Duke Energy the grand prize for the biggest rate hike.
“Many of our members live only on Social Security. A lot of people just can’t go on,” said Merrell. “This is gonna thrust a lot of people into desperate poverty, and it just can’t go on like this.”
Utility regulators have postponed until Nov. 20 a hearing in Raleigh that will include testimonies from expert witnesses, the AP reported. The commission’s decision in July postponed plans to grill energy experts a month earlier.