CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duke Energy's chief executive on Thursday touted the company's accomplishments over the past year, but some shareholders focused on a massive coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of a North Carolina river in toxic sludge.
Outside Duke's headquarters, where investors gathered for the annual shareholders meeting, about 200 protesters criticized the spill and the way the $50 billion company has handled the coal ash issue.
Duke, which merged with Progress Energy in 2012 and now serves much of West Florida, has 14 coal-fired plants with 33 ash pits spread across the state.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, told the protesters many of the pits are located in rural areas around minority communities.
"Duke is trying to say they have made a mess and now the people have to clean it up. What we're saying is they ought to clean it up," Barber said.
The shareholders meeting came nearly three months after the Feb. 2 spill that polluted the Dan River.
Duke CEO Lynn Good told shareholders that the company had a profitable year and was working hard to protect the environment. She said the company takes responsibility for the spill and "will do the right thing."
"Dan River was an accident," she said.
She also said the company is developing a plan to handle its ash pits.
"The long-term plan will be based on science and fact and engineering. We are committed to getting it right," she said.
Then she took questions from shareholders. Sixteen people spoke before the company cut off questions. Many criticized Duke for the spill, for not cleaning up coal ash pits and for failing to deal with climate-change issues.
Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said he disagreed that Duke had a good year. Besides the coal ash spill, he said the company was accused by the state of pumping 61 million gallons of contaminated water into the Cape Fear River. He said coal ash pollution from the company's Sutton plant threatened the drinking water of a Wilmington-area community.
Burdette noted that despite the problems, Good was receiving a $1.1 million bonus and a raise. He said her pay should be linked to performance.
Duke said in a recent regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it had spent $15 million so far plugging the collapsed pipe at its Eden power plant that triggered the Dan River spill. The company has also begun trying to dredge some of the spilled ash from the river.
Duke said it can't yet assess what costs may result from new laws affecting how the company handles the ash at its coal ash dumps in North Carolina, or from future legal claims, litigation or environmental fines.
Federal prosecutors have issued at least 23 subpoenas as part of a widening criminal investigation triggered by the spill. They are looking at whether the company received preferential treatment from the state environmental agency.