Amid security and protests, Duke shareholders re-elect current directors

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comMay 1, 2014 

Duke Energy stockholders waded through a raucous carnival of protesters Thursday for an annual meeting that produced no major changes after three months of coal ash intrigue.

Shareholders re-elected all 15 company directors, including those whom institutional investors had targeted for removal after a disastrous Feb. 2 ash spill into the Dan River.

A shareholder proposal for Duke to fully disclose its political contributions failed, according to preliminary results.

Speeches and street theater denouncing Duke and coal ash came from about 100 protesters who rallied outside the meeting in uptown Charlotte.

“I personally feel that Duke Energy has willfully turned a blind eye to the hazards of things like the coal ash ponds at Riverbend (power plant) to our drinking water in Charlotte,” Steve Rundle, a small-business owner, said as he drummed a plastic water jug. “If we have an incident like Dan River, we would turn on our taps and coal ash would come out.”

Security was tight outside and inside the meeting. Reporters were assigned public relations escorts. Officials removed one man at the outset of the meeting when he interrupted to raise an issue related to the directors.

CEO Lynn Good, presiding over the meeting for the first time, took questions from 16 shareholders or proxy holders. Most probed the ash spill, Duke’s contributions to climate change and its investments in renewable energy.

Deborah Ferruccio, who lives in Warren County, peppered Good with demands that Duke clean up the Dan River faster.

“I don’t appreciate a lifetime of having to worry about what’s in my water,” she said.

Good repeated Duke’s talking points on the ash spill: Duke responded quickly, apologized and took responsibility; it’s working with state and federal agencies who are directing the cleanup; the company is developing a long-term plan for its ash management due by the end of 2014.

“We will be there until it’s resolved,” Good said.

Shareholder Fred Counsell, who regularly travels from New York to the annual meetings, is withholding judgment on Duke’s handling of the ash crisis. “I’ve seen pictures, and it doesn’t look pretty,” he said in an interview.

But Counsell said Duke still has the opportunity for a Bill Lee moment. The late, legendary Duke Power CEO became a leader in restoring confidence in the nuclear industry after a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in 1979.

“Mr. Lee stepped up,” he said. “I believe that, quietly and thoroughly, Duke can take the lead and remediate this.”

14 re-elected

State treasurer Janet Cowell, representing North Carolina’s $80 billion pension plan for government employees, had said she would vote against one director in the aftermath of the ash spill.

The public pension funds for California and New York City had urged shareholders to remove four directors.

Fourteen board members were re-elected Thursday with at least 90 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. Director Carlos Saladrigas, targeted by Cowell as the longest-tenured member of a committee on environmental issues, got 85 percent of the vote.

A shareholder proposal on disclosing political contributions, brought by the activist Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, was defeated, with 42 percent of the votes.

The ash spill has spotlighted Duke’s political spending, said the foundation’s Bill Dempsey. Gov. Pat McCrory is a former Duke executive who appoints the state’s top environmental regulators, who in turn police coal ash.

The governor’s office confirmed Thursday that McCrory has sold his Duke stock.

“As public records have shown since April 15, the governor is not a shareholder of Duke Energy,” communications director Josh Ellis said by email. “This eliminates the often repeated, ridiculous and false, partisan left-wing attacks challenging the intent of our decisions and policies.”

A shareholder proposal allowing stock owners to call special meetings won with 59 percent of the votes.

Pointed questions

Good’s recap of 2013 covered Duke’s meeting earnings targets, saving $200 million in the first full year of its merger with Progress Energy and finishing a five-year building spree of new power plants.

A move to cheaper, cleaner natural gas has curbed carbon dioxide releases by 20 percent since 2005. Duke has long been among the nation’s leaders in those emissions.

Duke also landed this week among the top 10 of U.S. utilities in utility-scale solar capacity. But it has angered rooftop solar panel owners by proposing a cut in payments for the power they produce.

Given a chance to confront the CEO of the nation’s largest utility, most questioners were pointed if not hostile:

• “How can you say you’re doing the right thing while poisoning your neighbor’s drinking water and spending money on advertising?” asked Asheville-based French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson.

“Duke is committed to doing the right thing, and I think you’ll see that as we move forward,” Good replied.

•  George Friday, a community organizer from Gastonia, told Good her reassurances about concern for the environment and for customers rang hollow.

“I think the ‘we’ you’re describing is the ‘we’ that gets million-dollar bonuses,” Friday said. “I’m among the ratepayers for whom $20 a month to clean up coal ash is significant.”

Good recounted her own “humble background” as a teacher’s daughter and Duke’s programs to boost energy efficiency and help low-income customers.

“I understand what it means when there’s only so much money left,” she said.

• Waterkeeper Alliance official Donna Lisenby extracted a tentative commitment from the new CEO to see the Catawba and other rivers in Duke’s service territory first-hand, by canoe.

“I’ll keep my end of the bargain,” said Lisenby, who strode to the podium to shake Good’s hand, “and I hope she does, too.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender

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