Under the Dome

New coal ash ads hit airwaves as Duke shareholders arrive

A flurry of TV, radio and web spots about coal ash are hitting North Carolina’s airwaves this week in advance of Duke Energy’s shareholders meeting in Charlotte on Thursday.

Representatives of religious, labor and social justice groups will also be holding a news conference in Charlotte on Thursday aimed at the shareholders. And in another development Wednesday, state Treasurer Janet Cowell said she would vote against an incumbent Duke board member, Carlos Saladrigas, in hopes of replacing him with someone with experience in environmental cleanup.

The national Sierra Club is launching a TV ad buy in Charlotte and Asheville before, during and after the shareholders meeting, which is aimed at pressuring the utility to “move beyond coal.”

The ad also coincides with Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” documentary series about climate change, which will feature efforts to retire Duke’s Asheville coal plant. The primetime spots will draw national attention to the Western North Carolina Alliance, which has been targeting the Asheville plant for the past two years.

The Sierra Club wouldn’t disclose the cost of the ad buy, but spokeswoman Jenna Garland told Dome the spots will be on broadcast stations and cable outlets in the entire Charlotte and Asheville/Greenville, S.C. media markets. She called it a “robust buy that will get our message across to Duke Energy executives as well as North Carolinians living in these two regions.”

The organization wants the company to close the plant, remove coal ash from riverside storage basins, and invest in clean energy.

Another national environmental group – the Natural Resources Defense Council – ran a series of TV ads attacking Gov. Pat McCrory and a number of legislators over the coal ash controversy earlier this year.

Also this week, the environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices released a web-only video that questions whether several Stokes County residents’ health problems can be blamed on Duke’s Belews Lake coal-fired power plant. That group also wants the utility to close that plant and remove ash from there and the company’s other sites in North Carolina.

Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said groundwater around the company’s coal ash ponds is routinely tested, and there is no indication that they pose a health concern for neighbors, such as those depicted in the video.

“While I don’t know the specifics of those individual situations, I can say the energy industry operates under very strict regulations especially designed to protect public health and safety,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to minimize the concerns they have. Those are real concerns and I respect that.”

Responding to the Sierra Club ads about moving beyond coal, Culbert said the utility recently spent $9 billion to modernize plants and is in the process of closing older facilities. Duke has invested in five new natural gas plants in North Carolina since 2011, she added.

Duke Energy is also mounting its own TV, radio and print campaign this week to counter the image of the giant utility as an irresponsible polluter by personalizing its employees and emphasizing its commitment to cleaning up coal ash. Culbert declined to say how much was being spent nor where the ads were running, but said shareholders would pay for the advertisements.

Here’s a look at the environmentalists’ spots:

At What Cost? A N.C. community worries about coal pollution from Appalachian Voices on Vimeo.