Duke Energy wants Indian site

The utility pushes for OK on substation.

Staff WriterMay 12, 2010 

Duke Energy says it is running out of time and options to build a substation near a sacred Cherokee mound in Western North Carolina before the region is threatened by power blackouts.

The Charlotte electric company told the N.C. Utilities Commission this week that it may have no choice than to build near Kituwah, the site that Cherokees regard as their Garden of Eden.

Opponents have asked the state commission to block Duke's plans to build near Kituwah, which the Cherokees regard as the birthplace of their people. "The company must take action," Duke told the utilities commission in a filing. "A loss of a transformer under the current configuration, and without the upgrade, could result in an outage lasting several days, or at a minimum, rotating blackouts."

Duke has halted construction as it explores other options and negotiates with the Cherokees and Swain County officials. But the company warns that alternative sites are problematic because they will require securing rights of way and current property owners refuse to sell.

Duke maintains its legal right to build on the land it bought two years ago for $1.5 million. The site lies about a half-mile from Kituwah on the other side of the Tuckasegee River and U.S. 74.

Tribe foresees trouble

The Eastern Band of Cherokee, the tribe that owns the land, had expected Duke to pick another site soon. Russell Townsend, the tribe's historical preservation officer, said Tuesday that he was instructed by the tribe's legal office last week to prepare to begin an archaeological survey on one of Duke's proposed alternate sites.

If Duke moves ahead with plans to build near Kituwah, Townsend said, the company would likely face protests and lawsuits.

"There will be trouble," Townsend said. "I can't imagine if Duke proceeds to build there that the tribe would just say, 'That's a shame,' and move along."

Duke made plans to build near the site after a consultant assured the company that construction would not affect archaeological resources, the company wrote to the commission.

After Duke began clearing the land, Swain County commissioners imposed a 90-day moratorium on substations and towers. The Eastern Band in this state and two Cherokee tribes in Oklahoma have urged Duke to change sites. A group of local residents asked the N.C. Utilities Commission to block the project.

Duke spokesman Jason Walls said the company must make a decision soon to meet its schedule to build the substation and power lines before the summer of 2011.

"At the end of the day, the current site may be the best site for us to build on," Walls said.

The company has been working for months to find a solution. Duke is proposing to conceal the substation with trees and landscaping. It is also proposing to use darkened steel, rather than reflective galvanized steel, to camouflage the station and 100-foot tall power lines.

Duke's filing says the proposed station "will be barely visible from the Kituwah mound."

Townsend said the visual imprint of the substation could be minimized, but not the towers.

A mound in valley

The valley in the mountains of Swain County features a man-made mound that once was occupied by the Cherokee tribal guardian of the sacred flame. Archaeologists have found burial sites at the site and speculate there may be hundreds more.

The U.S. government evicted the Cherokees from the area in the early 1820s and auctioned off the land to European settlers for agriculture. Cherokees who signed treaties with the U.S. government were allowed to remain in Western North Carolina in 1838-39 when American Indians were forcibly relocated from the southeastern United States to reservations in western territories.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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