Divest for Children and the Planet

The children and our only planet home. Both are so abundantly diverse and preciously unique that they fill my soul with wonder. Inside my heart lives a fierce drive to see them protected so they may grow to the fullness of their capacity.

But alas, I fear that the future of both is threatened by the growing dark menace of climate change looming ever larger and more deadly as each year passes without dramatically lowering human-caused carbon emissions. What vexes me most is how the fossil fuel industry spends millions every day enabling the release of more planet killing carbon into the atmosphere. If they keep doing this, millions of children and most living things on earth will suffer catastrophic consequences. These villains must be stopped.

In my travels across five continents, I have worked with hundreds of people who are growing the ranks of the rebellion against the fossil fuel colonialism that threatens us all. One contingent of this worldwide force are the activists targeting the financing of the worst carbon menaces-companies that mine, transport and burn coal. Not only does coal contribute carbon to the atmosphere it also contains many heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury. When it is burned, these heavy metals are either released into the air or concentrated in the coal ash.

These activists’ goal is simple –  if we speak truth to power and help lenders understand the massive damage and attendant risks that they are underwriting, they will be less willing to support these bad actors, thus depriving them of the capital and financial support they need to operate. We started our divestment work with the worst of the worst-the companies with the most egregious human rights atrocities and devastating environmental impacts.

In the U.S., the number one coal burning carbon emitter is Duke Energy. Adding injury to injury, in addition to its enormous carbon emissions, Duke has also pumped millions of tons of wet coal ash into open pits without liners alongside rivers.  Decade after decade these waste pits grew until each of Duke’s coal-fired power plants had multiple pits that were many times larger than the Roman Coliseum. These massive industrial waste pits have contaminated groundwater and surface water with a witches’ brew of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and thallium.

In February 2014, a rusty pipe under a Duke Energy coal ash waste pit failed and released 140,000 tons of toxic waste and waste water into the Dan River. Try to wrap your head around this amount of toxic waste – 140,000 tons equals 280 million pounds. It was the third largest coal waste spill in U.S. history. For five days, Duke Energy failed to contain the spill. By the end of the week, a dark grey plume of coal ash had contaminated the Dan River for 112 kilometers in two states.

For this crime and others at 3 additional sites, Duke Energy was indicted and pled guilty to multiple federal criminal violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act. Duke was fined a total of $110 million by federal and state authorities, placed on 5 years probation and ordered to pay restitution. It was also found guilty of similar environmental crimes in Indiana.

Duke Energy’s crimes attracted international notice. In September 2016, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund divested more than $540 million in Duke Energy stock and bonds for ethical reasons and because of the environmental and financial risk Duke’s leaking ash ponds pose to water.

Many other Duke Energy coal plants have continued to pollute water. Waterkeeper Alliance and others have filed lawsuits to stop Duke’s ongoing illegal water pollution at these additional sites.

Lawsuit settlements for 8 sites required Duke Energy to fully excavate approximately 37 million tons of industrial waste at 23 of its 32 leaking coal ash pits in North Carolina. The cumulative cost of cleaning ups these pits is estimated at $4.2 billion dollars.

State legislation in North Carolina required Duke Energy to provide a permanent source of clean drinking water to the more than 800 residents using wells within 800 meters of its leaking coal ash waste pits. The price for this alone is estimated at $29.5 million dollars.

Lawsuits are still pending for six remaining sites in North Carolina with the largest waste pits. They contain 77 million tons of Duke Energy coal ash. If legal cases require full excavation at these remaining sites, it could drive Duke’s future cleanup costs to more than $12 billion. Keep in mind that this is for North Carolina alone, which is only one of the many states in which Duke operates coal-burning power plants with massive coal ash pits.

The bottom line is that Duke Energy’s criminally negligent history of operating leaking coal ash pits that are still contaminating groundwater and surface water every day has become a major liability added to its massive carbon impact. Waterkeeper Alliance’s expectation is simple: Duke Energy must stop contaminating public drinking water sources and waterways with toxic heavy metals. As long as it continues to pollute water, we will pursue justice on behalf of the children who need and deserve a livable planet and clean water for life.

This month, this pursuit of justice took me to Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland where I spoke at annual general shareholder meetings (AGM) of institutional investors in the coal industry. I was joined by other activists from Actares, Banktrack, Friends of the Earth France, Greenpeace, Re: Common and Urgewald. Together, we are working to educate major investors about the risks of investing in coal companies and are encouraging them to divest their funds from these dangerous companies. This advocacy effort includes banks and large insurance companies because they are underwriting climate chaos and should unfriend coal.

At the United Bank of Switzerland AGM, we shared this critical information about the horrific human rights and environmental impacts caused by Duke Energy and Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company behind the Dakota Access, Rover and Bayou Bridge Pipelines

At the Generali AGM, Chairman Gabriele Galateri De Genoa stated that Generali has divested 90% of its Duke Energy stock and will no longer insure Duke. This divestment amounted to approximately 1.26 million shares of Duke Energy stock and bonds valued at about $100 million.

At our meeting with Allianz, the insurer reported that its corporate asset account no longer holds any Duke Energy stock or bonds. Allianz began phasing out of coal in November 2015 and stopped investing in companies that derive more than 30 percent of revenue from coal mining or generate over 30 percent of their energy from coal.

The laudable Allianz, Generali and Norwegian Pension Fund divestments from Duke Energy and other coal companies are smart business decisions by those companies that also provide justice for the children and our planet. As of December 2016, the amount committed to divestment from fossil fuel companies doubled to $5.2 trillion in a little more than a year.  

If our children are to inherit a livable planet, this fast-moving trend must continue gaining momentum. Waterkeeper Alliance is doing its part. Are you? Join the global fossil fuel divestment movement and together let’s leave the beautiful children of the world a bright future with abundant clean water.

About Waterkeeper

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit waterkeeper.org