Duke Energy CEO Deceptive on Health Risks of Toxic Coal Ash
In a “60 Minutes” interview aired on December 7, 2014, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good exhibited a significantly high level of deceptive behavior regarding health risks associated with the company’s disposal and storage of coal ash. QVerity has concluded from its behavioral analysis of the interview that despite Duke Energy’s assurances to the contrary, the situation may pose a serious health threat to the people of North Carolina.
At issue is commentary on the possible danger posed by millions of tons of coal ash, the toxic waste generated by coal-burning power plants owned by Duke Energy, the largest utility company in the country. Specifically, the "60 Minutes" report addressed a spill in February that poured an estimated 30,000 to 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River. Ms. Good exhibited deceptive behavior throughout the interview conducted by "60 Minutes" correspondent Leslie Stahl, but the most troubling instance came when Ms. Good was asked, "Does Duke's coal ash, today, pose any health risk at all?"
Ms. Good exhibited a large cluster of deceptive behaviors with her response, “I believe our system is operating safely.” These behaviors included:
- Failure to answer the question: Ms. Good did not provide an answer to the question that was asked.
- Qualified response: By qualifying her response with the phrase, “I believe,” Ms. Good was effectively acknowledging that it may not be the case that the system is operating safely.
- Convincing statement: Rather than providing the “yes” or “no” answer that the question solicited, Ms. Good responded with a statement aimed at convincing us that the system is safe.
- Significant swallow: Ms. Good performed a significant swallow as the question was being asked, indicating that a spike in anxiety occurred upon recognition of what she was going to have to respond to.
- Verbal/Non-verbal disconnect: Although Ms. Good was making an affirmative statement about the system operating safely, as she made it she was shaking her head from side to side in a negative motion.
This significant cluster of deceptive indicators strongly suggest that the situation may well present a serious health risk to the general public in North Carolina. It also demonstrates that Duke Energy may be aware of that risk, and that the company may have adopted a strategy to obfuscate its seriousness.
Ms. Good’s behavior throughout the interview, moreover, was consistent with this finding. In one instance, Ms. Good exhibited deception in defending an evasive omission with respect to the toxicity of the coal ash. At one point in the interview, Ms. Good said, “Some of the readings that we have found are for elements like iron and manganese, which are naturally occurring.”
Ms. Stahl challenged that statement, noting, “But nine of your plants have been found to have groundwater violations for contaminants including lead, sulfate, boron, chromium, thallium, selenium, and arsenic.”
This demonstrates that Ms. Good had exhibited overly specific behavior by not addressing the other contaminants. In response to the question, Ms. Good paused and said, “So we have had exceedances. And when I said, ‘iron and manganese,’ Leslie, I was talking about the majority of them. We have had instances of other readings, as well.”
Again, we have a cluster of deceptive indicators. In addition to the behavioral pause, there was an inappropriate level of politeness/familiarity in the form of referring to Ms. Stahl by name, which was an anomaly in her responses throughout the interview.
Ms. Good’s deceptive behavior also included a stream of convincing statements aimed at persuading us of the responsible nature of Duke Energy’s handling of the situation, rather than conveying substantive information about the true nature of the health risk. Examples of these convincing statements include:
- “We moved immediately to repair the pipe, and also begin cleaning the river.”
- “We've used this as an opportunity at Duke to raise our standards even higher.”
- "The ash that has been produced has been stored in accordance with industry standards and practices for decades."
- “We have very openly and transparently disclosed these results, to work with the regulators to determine whether it really represents a risk.”
- “We take this very seriously, and we’re using this as an opportunity to raise our standards even higher, to ensure that our operations are safe. It’s our highest priority at Duke.”
It’s noteworthy that the “used this as an opportunity to raise our standards even higher” verbiage was used twice, an indication that this reflected Duke Energy’s strategic messaging in response to the spill, which underscores the convincing nature of the behavior.
Finally, Ms. Good exhibited attack behavior in the form of what we call an “inappropriate level of concern.” Despite the very serious nature of the matter under discussion, Ms. Good was smiling broadly in an exchange about the particularly controversial topic of how to render the toxic dump sites safe. In the exchange, Ms. Good stated, “We’re committed to closing all of the sites.” When Ms. Stahl responded with the question, “When you say ‘closed,’ what do you mean by ‘closed’?” Ms. Good smiled broadly and said, “So there are various methods, um, that can be used to close. Certainly excavating them to a lined landfill is one of the methods.”
The “60 Minutes” report pointed out that that method would cost up to $8 billion, and that Duke Energy was considering two cheaper options for each site: installing an underground lining and then capping the top; and, the cheapest option, capping the top with no underground lining.
When Ms. Stahl asked why not line them all, Ms. Good responded, “I’d love to tell you there’s a simple solution to this,” whereupon she was interrupted by Ms. Stahl's question as to why that wasn't a simple solution. Ms. Good again smiled broadly and said, “I’d love to tell you that ash that’s been stored for decades can be solved quickly.”
Again, we have a cluster of deceptive indicators: The attack behavior, in the form of an inappropriate level of concern (smiling in response to a serious question is an attack on the questioner in the sense that it dismisses the legitimacy of the question), was accompanied by a failure to answer the question. It should be noted, moreover, that Ms. Good’s statement that Duke Energy is “committed” to rendering the sites safe, as opposed to a statement of a definitive outcome, may indicate that the company is unsure of its wherewithal to fix the problem. In any case, it appears that Duke Energy is prepared to allow the potential health risk to go on for an extended period of time, perhaps years.
Ms. Good’s failure to directly address Ms. Stahl's question as to why Duke Energy hasn't simply resolved to install an underground lining in all of the sites suggests that the company is weighing the public good against the cost of rendering the sites safe. That is, Ms. Good is faced with the conundrum of doing the right thing for the citizens of North Carolina vs. doing what is in the best corporate interests of Duke Energy. The likely takeaway here is that Duke Energy’s aim is to do and spend as little as possible in fulfilling its obligation to render the sites safe.