Perdue, Alcoa vie over river

Issue is control of electricity

Staff WriterJune 27, 2010 

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CORRECTION

A story on Page 1B on Sunday incorrectly stated who is hosting environmental activist Erin Brockovich in Raleigh. She is being hosted by Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and Raleigh City Council member Nancy McFarlane.

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Gov. Bev Perdue is making a move to have the state take control of the Yadkin River from Alcoa, one of the world's largest aluminum producers.

The issue of who should benefit from the Yadkin and the power it produces has divided environmentalists, legislators and communities along the river about 100 miles west of Raleigh.

The legislature is stuck on the question of whether the state should set up a public trust to control a series of dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric stations the company began building along a 38-mile stretch of the river nearly a century ago. The state Senate approved the public trust last year, but it failed in the House.

Before a public trust would have anything to do, Alcoa's challengers would have to persuade a federal board to take the company's license to produce power on the Yadkin.

Supporters say the trust still has a chance, and lobbyists on both sides stepped up their pleas to lawmakers last week.

Yadkin Riverkeeper, an environmental organization concerned with the ecology of the waterway, is having international environmental activist Erin Brockovich come talk to legislators and the public Tuesday in hopes of building support for government control.

The N.C. Property Rights Coalition, which helped derail the bill in the House last year, ran radio ads this month criticizing the notion of the state taking over a private company's property.

1917 operations

Alcoa began operating an aluminum smelter in the Stanly County town of Badin in 1917 and used power from its dams to run it. The plant is now closed. Alcoa sells the electricity it produces from its hydroelectric stations and wants to renew the federal license it obtained in 1958 to continue operating.

Stanly County and Perdue have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take back or "recapture" the license. Having the state take over the Yadkin dams would involve a series of complicated maneuvers that would have the federal government agreeing for the first time to take control of a private hydroelectric project and then having the state buy it.

Alcoa says it deserves its new license and that the state's efforts to wrest control amount to a government taking of private property.

Legislators, environmentalists and local and state politicians say public control of the dams and property would provide an opportunity to test for pollutants left by the smelting operation and to control water flow in the river. They also want to use money from electricity sales to help other businesses create and retain jobs.

Citizens deserve to get maximum benefit from the river and to be certain that contaminants from the smelting operation are removed, said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican who supports creating the public trust.

"It's a matter of stewardship," Hartsell said. "We need to see to it that it's cleaned up."

Stanly County Manager Andrew Lucas said that with the smelter jobs gone, Alcoa no longer offers enough public benefits to justify controlling the river.

"The people of the region should benefit from the water flow," Lucas said.

Alcoa disputes all points made by its critics. The company maintains that it has cleaned up all the waste from the smelter. Gene Ellis, an Alcoa spokesman who worked on the relicensing, said the company is exercising its rights to use water and send it downstream once it has generated power. Alcoa has worked out a plan for water flow during droughts that has been tested and included in the licensing agreement.

'Unanswered questions'

More than 20 organizations and governments support Alcoa's application, including Albemarle, the largest city in Stanly County, and the Salisbury-based conservation group LandTrust for Central North Carolina. Moreover, Ellis said, the deadline for the state to ask the federal commission to recapture the license passed four years ago.

But some legislators who rejected the plan for a public trust last year are reconsidering. Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat interested in environmental issues, said she was too accepting of the company's assessment of its environmental record and now wonders whether the $10 million the company said it spent to clean industrial waste from its closed smelter was enough to get it all.

Harrison wondered aloud whether there would be some way to guarantee that the company has done a complete cleanup before its license is renewed.

"I don't know what will happen," she said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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