For decades, Alcoa smelted aluminum in the Yadkin River valley, employing thousands in a plant that was powered by four massive hydroelectric dams.
Today, the plant has been shuttered for a decade and the dams have been sold, but Alcoa remains a major presence in the valley, where it owns more than 9,000 acres of undeveloped land. Alcoa’s Yadkin riverlands are currently part of a state-run game lands program, allowing the public to hunt, fish and hike.
But that could change if the state and a regional land conservation group can’t come up with the money to buy the land and permanently set it aside for conservation.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina hope to raise between $10 million and $12 million in order to buy 4,700 acres from Alcoa, said LandTrust executive director Travis Morehead. The properties include 76 miles of undeveloped Yadkin River shoreline in Davidson, Davie, Montgomery and Rowan counties, about 100 miles west of Raleigh.
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“We need to preserve some areas that are pristine and undeveloped for that aesthetic value,” Morehead said.
The 4,700 acres are available to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and land trust because of an agreement that led to the re-licensing of the hydroelectric dams. The agreement was signed in 2007 by Alcoa, state and local government agencies and the land trust, among others, but wasn’t approved until last September.
The agreement gives the land trust and the Wildlife Resources Commission five years to come up with the money to buy the property.
The organizations hope to have the funds in hand by early next year, with money coming from grants and private donations, said Brian McRae, land and water section chief of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Purchasing the land would ensure it remains in the game lands program, which attracts hunters and nature lovers both locally and from nearby Charlotte and the Triad, Morehead said. Nearly all of Alcoa’s 9,000 acres of land are part of the program. Morehead said the land trust will attempt to purchase all of the land to keep it that way.
“If that were to change, it would be a tremendous blow to sportspeople, not just locally but for the tourist economy,” he said.
Morehead said he is searching for additional sources of money to buy the 4,300 acres not covered by Alcoa’s re-licensing agreement. Alcoa spokesperson Jim Beck said the company is currently evaluating options for the sale of the land.
For environmentalists, the permanent preservation of Alcoa’s land would be a silver lining in a long, complicated relationship with the company.
Alcoa came to Badin in 1915, purchasing the town, its aluminum smelting plant and the tracts of land surrounding the Yadkin River. To power its facility, Alcoa built the hydroelectric dams. But in 2010, the plant closed, and the industrial jobs evaporated.
When Alcoa submitted the re-licensing agreement to renew its dam permits, in order to sell the energy produced, the permit was fought for eight years – first by local officials, then by the administrations of former governors Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory.
They claimed because of the closure of the aluminum plant, Alcoa was no longer providing an economic boost for the region, and they wanted control of the dams ceded to the state.
The state’s legal challenges were ultimately unsuccessful, leading to the renewal of the dam permits last September by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. By then, the company had already decided to sell the dams to Maryland-based Cube Hydro.
In February, Alcoa finalized the sale of the dams. The company is now marketing the site of its former smelting plant for industrial redevelopment, Beck said.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Will Scott said the plant left a legacy of environmental contamination in the Badin Lake and Yadkin River tributaries. During its nearly 100-year operation, the plant polluted local waterways and reservoirs with industrial byproducts, including cyanide, fluoride, arsenic and carcinogens, according to the Yadkin Riverkeeper website.
Although he believes Alcoa’s asking price is too high, Scott said the purchase of the land will have environmental benefits.
“We really believe that conservation purchases like this along waterways are essential to preserving water quality,” he said.
Sam Killenberg: 919-829-4582
For more information about The LandTrust for Central North Carolina, please contact The LandTrust at 704-647-0302 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.landtrustcnc.org.