GASTON COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - A class-action lawsuit involving Duke Energy's coal ash ponds has been dismissed after an agreement was reached between the company and the families involved.
The lawsuit, filed in late August, states the families were sent letters from Duke offering money in exchange for giving up any future legal claims related to coal ash and contaminated well water.
"After a lengthy process, Duke agreed to changes to the access agreement -- a form that lets Duke or other contractors go onto homestead properties," a letter from the plaintiffs states. "Duke also agreed to changes to its release -- a form that releases Duke from certain claims."
The letter claims the changes give families more protection than they would have originally received. "The families now have more power to hold Duke accountable for future harms and losses if they occur," the letter from the plaintiffs reads.
Paige Sheehan with Duke Energy Corporate Communications says, "As we talked with residents, we were able to clarify misinformation and confusion about what is and is not included in the release they'd be asked to sign if they accepted a voluntary financial package. We did not change the offering made to them or all eligible neighbors, but 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."
Sheehan says the company "voluntarily offered a financial package to all eligible plant neighbors and supported a law that offers them a permanent new water supply even though evidence indicates ash basins are not responsible for the constituents in their wells."
The lawsuit was dismissed Thursday.
In early December 2016, Duke issued a press release stating the company would be giving a "financial supplement" and permanent water replacement to neighbors whose water supply had been affected by coal ash.
A FAQ regarding financial supplement is posted on the company's website.
"Duke's formal press release dated December 7, 2016 failed to include any mention of a release of liability. Rather, it touted that the utility would be '[o]ffering eligible property owners a connection to a public water supply and/or installation of whole-home water filter systems' for 'about 950 eligible households,'" the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit states that on January 13, 2016, The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved the plans for supplying neighbors with a permanent water replacement. It was only after that approval and into January and February, the lawsuit states, that homeowners learned Duke was "requiring execution of a release that would mean residents would give up their right to sue Duke over coal ash claims anytime in the future" for the financial supplement agreement.
Sheehan says details of the settlement are confidential.
"As has been the Company's position all along, there are no special financial benefits or other provisions for plant neighbors involved in the lawsuit," Sheehan says. "In other words, all residents, regardless of whether they are represented, continue to be treated equally, and in a fair and equitable manner."