Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jim Stephenson: A good man in a tough business

This has been a hard week for North Carolinians who love the coastal region -- and those who work hard at preserving what is best there. Earlier this week David Stick, noted author, historian and coastal conservationist, died at age 89. He had a rich and full life and a world of friends.

But this morning came terrible news that 57-year-old Jim Stephenson, policy analyst for the N.C. Coastal Federation and a tireless advocate for protecting our coastal resources, had died in Raleigh. Stephenson lived in Morehead City but rented an apartment during legislative sessions, where he spent a lot of time tracking coastal legislation specifically and promoting what he saw as good environmental policy in general. The Coastal Federation announced on its Web site this afternoon that he had died early Thursday of a heart attack or stroke.

Bearded and bespectacled, Jim was the perfect advocate and thinker about the environment, which involves some highly technical issues. He was a patient man who spent a lot of time explaining the science as well as the mechanics and the politics of environmental issues. Before he joined the Coastal Federation he was executive director of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, and prior to that he was an adviser to officials in his home state of Pennsylvania.

In this legislative session he worked hard on a number of issues, including plans to allow construction of terminal groins at various N.C. inlets as well as construction of the state's first concrete plant on the Northeast Cape Fear River in Wilmington.

I think Jim had a lot of adversaries in his work, but I don't know of a single enemy. That's all the more remarkable because coastal controversies boil at high speed and tempers often flare. He was well regarded as a quiet man, level-headed, thoughtful, civil and determined. I'll miss his advice and counsel -- and those who revere our coastal areas will miss his efforts to preserve our shorelines and keep our coastal waters clean.

Stay should halt Alcoa license process, Stanly County says

Opponents of Alcoa Power Generating Inc. have hailed a state administrative law judge's decision blocking at least temporarily the issuance of a state water quality permit that Alcoa needs to proceed with its request for a renewal of a 50-year license to operate hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. Alcoa used to be a major employer, producing aluminum at its Badin facility, but now has a relative handful of N.C. employees.

Gov. Bev Perdue has joined opponents in opposing a renewal of the license, although recently her administration issued the water quality permit. Then Stanly County objected to issuance of that permit, and Perdue has intervened on behalf of Stanly County and the public interest issues it raised about water quality in the Yadkin. That's an interesting development, considering how close Alcoa came to getting the permit last year and this year.

Yesterday, Alcoa issued a statement saying the stay would not impede the license renewal process: "Despite the stay, FERC can issue a new long-term license for the Yadkin Project. Any changes to the 401 certificate will be subsequently incorporated into the FERC license," Alcoa said.

But a lawyer for Stanly County challenges that assertion and has written the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to say it would be "premature" to issue a license prior to determination about the state water quality permit.

Here's part of what Stanly County said last night:

The Stanly County Board of Commissioners is commending the May 26 decision by Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster granting a injunction barring the issuance of a 401 Water Quality Certification to Alcoa for the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, based on an appeal and motion filed by attorneys for Stanly County. The ruling by Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster delays granting Alcoa the permit until the full appeal is heard and thus denies Alcoa from meeting all of the requirements for its re-licensing application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for another 50-year monopoly of control of water rights on the Project, which includes dams and powerhouses along a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River at High Rock, Tuckertown, Narrows and Falls Reservoirs in Davie, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery and Stanly counties.

An attorney representing Gov. Bev Perdue’s office informed Judge Webster during the hearing that the Governor wished to be heard as a “friend of the court” in order to satisfy her obligation to serve the interest of the public. The Governor’s brief noted that she “intends to vigorously oppose” Alcoa's license because the relicensing brought up questions involving “the welfare of our environment, the life of the Yadkin River and, ultimately, the health and safety of the people of this state.” The attorney representing NCDENR did not oppose the request, agreeing with the Governor’s attorney that a stay of the issuance of the permit is in the public interest.

The appeal of the 401 certification alleges that NCDENR neglected to follow federal Clean Water Act requirements and state provisions regarding water quality protections and environmental review in order to issue the certification May 7, despite the agency’s own reports that found “significant contamination” including PCBs at the Alcoa site on Badin Lake, which is part of the Project that flows into the Yadkin River via Narrows Dam in Stanly County. As part of their argument for issuing a stay, Stanly County cited a recent report by the Division of Water Quality (DWQ), which is part of DENR, that revealed that state acknowledged contamination in the Project’s swimming areas, found some PCBs which came from Alcoa’s operations in the Project and recognized that Alcoa is in violation of water quality standards for dissolved oxygen in the Project.

Alcoa must receive the state’s water quality certification in order to obtain a new license to operate the Project. If Alcoa receives the FERC license, it will have an exclusive monopoly on water rights to conduct hydroelectric operations on the upper Yadkin River for another 50 years, and the opportunity to make tens of millions in profits selling electricity generated from waters belonging to North Carolina citizens. Unlike other companies that generate electricity in North Carolina, Alcoa is not required to operate under rules by the N.C. Utilities Commission, and in fact sells much of its electricity outside of the state on the power grid rather than to N.C. customers.

There is a process underway to offer an alternative stewardship of the Project via a bill establishing the Yadkin River Trust, set up by the State of North Carolina. Already approved by the state Senate, it now awaits voting in the state House. It is believed Gov. Perdue will sign it into law if approved by the General Assembly, given her recent statement and actions.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Judge blocks Alcoa's water quality permit

An administrative law judge in Raleigh has at least temporarily blocked a state permit that Alcoa Power Generating Inc. needs in its quest for a renewal of its federal license to continue operating its hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. Gov. Bev Perdue has intervened in that process and last week asked the administrative judge to stay the permit issued a few weeks earlier by her administration's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Alcoa issued the following Wednesday afternoon:

The decision to grant a stay represents another unnecessary delay in the relicensing of the Yadkin Project. The water quality certificate was issued after nearly two years of scrutiny by water quality experts in the N.C. Division of Water Quality, and we are surprised that Gov. Perdue publicly disagreed with their decision by supporting a stay.

The Division of Water Quality defended its decision to grant the 401 certificate, saying it issued the right decision for the right reasons, and we are confident that the 401 certificate will be upheld.

Despite the stay, FERC can issue a new long-term license for the Yadkin Project. Any changes to the 401 certificate will be subsequently incorporated into the FERC license.

For more information on the company, see and

For information about opposition to the license renewal, see

On the death of David Stick

It would be nearly another half century before I met David Stick, but when I was a boy and first got my hands on his "Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast," I gobbled up every word he wrote, every description of the rugged inlets and treacherous shoals along our coastline, every sail plan from skysails and royals down to the spanker on a four mast bark.

Those days spent with his book -- and the wonderful map with exotic coastal features such as Caffey's Inlet and Swash Inlet, now closed, and Corncake Inlet -- kept alive in memory and song by Bland Simpson and his Red Clay Ramblers colleagues -- carried me away to another place in time.

And the names! There were Chicamacomico and Big and Little Kinnakeet, where lifesaving stations operated. And the tales of derring-do -- "Each Man a Hero", "From Sail to Steam" and "The Romance is Gone" -- lamenting the passing of an era because steamships probably meant the last of the big Outer Banks shipwrecks -- fired my imagination and made me want to go to sea. Years later my wife and I spent as much time as we could spare along the coast, sailing to some of the places Stick wrote about and gunkholing in our fishing boat in others.

I finally met David Stick on a breezy December afternoon in 2003 shortly before the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. A mutual acquaintance was showing me around, and drove me over to Stick's house among the huge old live oaks and wispy Spanish moss of the maritime forest back near the sound side of the island. He was gracious, professing to remember my writings from my days on the old Greensboro Daily News years earlier, and inquiring about the paper's editor Bill Snider and a few other giants of an earlier day in Tar Heel journalism.

Stick, by the way, was not a native North Carolinian, but you can't tell that from his writing. He came to us as a boy from New Jersey, and served as a combat correspondent in World War II in the Marines along the way. But he was otherwise as thoroughly North Carolinian as it's possible to be.

When I read of his death Sunday at age 89 it saddened me to know that such a productive historian and folklorist of the N.C. coast had passed away. His 11 books are a living memorial to the depth and breadth of his knowledge. He wrote among other things "Graveyard of the Atlantic" (1952), "The Outer Banks of North Carolina" (1958), "The Ash Wednesday Storm" (1987), "Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America" (1983) and edited my favorite, "An Outer Banks Reader" (1998). The latter is a marvelous compendium of other folks' writings about the Banks, from early explorers to contemporary times. Writers include Rachel Carson, who did groundbreaking environmental work in the marshes near Beaufort, John Dos Passos, who wrote about “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” named Wilbur and Orville, and Observer writer Elizabeth Leland's piece "The Crab Picker" from her own book "Our Vanishing Coast" in 1992.

The summer reading season is upon us and there are a lot of good books to read, but if you haven't read David Stick in a while, or ever, you can't go wrong with “An Outer Banks Reader.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Readers fire back on 'What happened in Raleigh?'

In a Sunday column I asked readers whether they thought the 1977 gubernatorial success amendment had anything to do with the problems of late with public corruption in Raleigh, and to send me a note. A lot of them held Democrats responsible -- they were, after all, in power when most of the problems occurred. And a lot of readers hold the news media responsible for not getting onto the problems sooner. Here's a sample of what they said:

A Charlotte businessman wrote:

As someone who has adopted North Carolina as his home only a decade ago, I enjoy learning some of the history of our great state.

You raised the question as to whether the fact that our governor could serve as a second term help led to his ethical lapses. The two are mutually exclusive. While power can corrupt and the ability to continue to raise money and run for office can feed the abuse of power, the underlying bad character must first exist. To limit the term of a governor because he or she may take liberties in his or her second term is managing to the lowest common denominator.

If we elect men and women of high character, we should not have to worry about them becoming corrupt or abusing their positions. Character should not be impacted by the amount of time they serve.

In the case of Mike Easley, it wasn’t the second term that allowed him to abuse his privileges, it was the lack of accountability and transparency of his daily activities that provided cover. How many times did the schedule he released to the press appear blank. Either he was truly not doing anything or he did not want anyone to know what he was doing. Either scenario is not good. He conditioned the press and his constituents that his activities were not to be questioned. After a while, we stopped asking, unless the activities were very visible signs of poor judgment. In the end, he had to possess the character which would allow these transgressions. No one made him or his wife make bad choices. And a second term just gave him more time to exhibit bad conduct.

I am in favor of term limits. I do think that the longer someone stays in office, the more difficult it becomes to defeat them, regardless of their performance. Fresh ideas and energy in public office are also essential. We need to return to the days of the citizen legislator instead of career politicians. However, for the office of governor, which in our state is not overly powerful, two terms seems reasonable.

There is another group of elected officials who should be examined in this discussions. As a state government, we do not limit the terms of our state senators or state house members. If you need examples of representatives and senators who have considerable power and influence derived from their positions and lack of term limits, it is the leaders of the majority party in both houses. They have the ability to raise campaign funds in the $1M range where as a typical challenger in any district struggles to raise $50 - $100k. We have several examples of favoritism across this state – special project and money going to parts of the state that serve as the home of these powerful legislators.

To ensure good government in the Old North State, we should elect men and women of good character, and we should limit the terms of state legislators. It becomes difficult to be the progressive state of our past, when our ideas are stale due to the same people walking the halls of Raleigh decade after decade.

From a Charlotte reader:

I think you are probably right in this column. Long time incumbency has caused even more problems and corruption in the Congress.

I still think there is a lot more to the Mike Easley era than we know. For a Governor to be that reclusive is just bizarre.

Another reasder:

Governors' tenures? Hard to say. Like your article outlines, there are arguments both ways. With each succeeding crisis/problem of state government, such as the Easley one in which we currently find ourselves, though, reforms by a democratic system operating under rule by law are the best vehicle for carrying us through. Let's hope any resulting reforms will be more than cosmetic ones.

A reader from Lancaster, S.C. said:

The short answer to your question is, this was just Democrats doing what Democrats do - as the old saying goes, "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." - Lord Acton!!! In this particular case, the more corruptly involved of the two Easleys, Mike, seems to be more a "behind the scenes guy" in his corruption, allowing his more outwardly corrupt spouse, Mary, to speak for the family, who, rather than slink back in the shadows like Mike, she has taken the Hillary Clinton tack and simply throws it into your face (via her lawyer), a typical tack of Democrats on the whole, although Republicans hereabouts have been known to play these games too.

On the whole, I guess we can understand and almost forgive Mike Easley, because he only did what forerunners have done and will continue to do - simply rape the system behind the scenes. Ah, but Mary, she's not content to play behind the scenes, her forte is more to throw it in our faces as if to say, "I did it and what are you going to do about it?" Or, as our recently elected president has said, "I won the election, what are you going to do about it?"

In your job of observing the political scene and writing about it, you have the privilege of reporting these examples of man's ability to corrupt the system, though probably never in your experience have you had the privilege to report on a husband and wife in such a manner.

My own feeling about both state and federal politics now is that the American people have given, through their ignorance, the Democrat Party a nearly veto proof Congress and a President who is making sure he can enact all his socialist ideas before the populace gets wise. The problem may be that he is going on this "toot" in so blatant a manner that the people are already wise to his act and I suspect that the next election may make some inroads into the Republicans taking back some of this majority. Regardless of your politics, I think these few months of the Obama administration are proof of the foolishness of giving any one party absolute control. Each night when I say my prayers, I thank the Good Lord for the likes of Barrack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barney Frank!

Another reader:

I agree with all three of the articles on this (the Sunday Viewpoint) page. We do not need two term governors yet your newspaper always endorses the second term Democrat. George Bush and Bill Clinton tried to get line item veto on the budget and senate bills, but I never saw any support from your paper. Now Gail Collins complains about an addition to a federal bill. Taylor Batten suggests the symphony go to wealthy individuals and businesses to raise an endowment yet you support people who want to redistribute the wealth and cut business profits with higher taxes. Then you wonder why some people worry about the news. You reap what you sew.

Bill James wrote:

What is the difference between Easley taking a cushy bunch of trips in exchange for appointments to high paying and high impact boards and…..

Jim Black engineering the appointment of his lieutenant (Culpepper) to a Board where he gets pension credit for all those low paying years in the legislature?

He works for 15 plus years earning $15k a year and then resigns the legislature and goes on a board that pays $115k earning pension credit at about 7 times his historical pay.

Because he finishes his state term at the higher pay, he gets a retirement pension that other legislators would only dream of. Did he earn that six figure pension? Nope. Just got it because he knew the folks and got himself appointed to the board that allowed him to transfer his pension credits from the legislative pension plan to the state one that covers that board.

You all act like Easley was the exception. He is the rule. The Democrats have been crooks in NC for decades.

Then there is the ‘tax-free’ nature of the daily allowance that is paid whether or not the folks show up. Those in the majority get put on ‘year round’ boards earning a ton of supposedly non-taxable pay never included on their tax returns.

If you are in the House and ‘play ball’ with the majority you get on committees and you make a lot of money. If you don’t – no committee assignments – and no money. You get this tax-free money (about $110 a day approx) even on holidays, Saturdays and Sundays when they aren’t even there.

Heck of a system these Democrats have.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Getting the Jims mixed up -- governors, that is

A lot of readers let me know right away that I had missed by four years the date when Jimmy Green became lieutenant governor. He won that post in 1976, not in 1972 as I wrote. I flat got my Jims mixed up. I was reminded of that Friday night at a North Caroliniana Society Dinner honoring Jim Holshouser, the mountain lawmaker from Boone who won the governorship in 1972, the first Republican to win the office in the 20th Century. Another Jim was elected that year, as there would be for elections to come. Jim Hunt won the lieutenant governorship in 1972, and moved to the governorship in 1976. He won two terms as governor, followed in 1984 and 1988 by another Jim -- Jim Martin of Mecklenburg. And, of course, Jim Hunt won two more terms as governor after Jim Martin, leading to speculation that you had to be named Jim to become governor in the last third of the 20th century. For 28 years, our governor was a guy named named Jim. Among the things these Jims had in comon, one speaker noted Friday -- all were Presbyterians. Mike Easley, a Roman Catholic, finally broke the Jim trend, winning the governorship in 2000 and 2004.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Out-of-control lawmakers pawing pages? Again?

What's this? Out-of-control legislators from Alamance County pawing innocent teenage pages in the state House of Representatives? Again? Say it ain't so, Joe!

It may not be so, but so far the accounts collected by House Sergeant and Arms Bob Samuels don't sound good. Fellow Republican legislators said state Rep. Cary Allred, R-Alamance, had alcohol on his breath, a heated exchange with House Speaker Joe Hackney, planted a kiss on either the lips or the cheek of a page on the House floor and committed what one legislator called a "full body hug" and what another said was a "gruesome bear hug" -- possibly twice --on the night of April 27. Here's a link to Ben Niolet's story. He also was stopped and later ticketed for speeding that night.

Allred says there's nothing to it other than a "witch hunt," and added that he not only sponsored the page, she's more like a granddaughter. But there's obviously more to this. Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, House Minority Whip, said he urged Allred to settle down that night, and Allred said, "I am 62 years old, and I'm worth $2 million. People ought to show me respect."

I don't think Allred fully understands this, but even if he was worth $100 million, they wouldn't respect him in the House because of his propensity to pop off at every opportunity. Allred likes to debate, especially about legislation he thinks is bad. An example: The recent smoking ban bill, he argued, would lead to the creation of smoking speakeasies where people would go to smoke illegally. With his bass voice, he's a frequent objector, especially if he sees legislation as reflective of an overbearing government diminishing person freedom. He doesn't see the virtual eye-rolling from members of both parties when he jumps to his feet to debate a bill.

Allred's contention that it was nothing more than a grandfatherly kiss bestowed upon a family friend misses a key point: Many families sent their sons and daughters to Raleigh for a week to be pages, but they don't expect them to be embarrassed or hugged or kissed or made a spectacle of on the House or Senate floor, or anywhere else in Raleigh, by a legislator. A handshake will do just fine, thank you.

Any many parents remember the case of Ken Miller, another legislator from Alamance County who was accused of kissing the hand -- or slobbering on the hand -- of a page. Miller, also a Republican, was the object of an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee in 1996 before he was formally censured by the full House in public session. The ethics committee chair that session was Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie. She said that Allred's hug of the page on April 27 was the closest thing she had ever seen to sexual battery, according to Samuels' report.

Samuels' report on what happened that night now goes to the Legislative Ethics Commission for its consideration. It's not Allred's first experience with ethics panels. When he was in the state Senate in the early 1980s, the legislative ethics committee looked into whether Allred violated the legislative code of ethics. He had written 1,100 physicians on his pharmaceutical company's stationery seeking their input on bills in a committee he served on. He asked the doctors to remember his company and its sales agents when they came calling.

The ethics committee ruled his actions "could be construed as a violation" of the ethics law and directed Allred to send an apology for his actions to each doctor he had written. At the time, Allred said the ethics panel was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hagan: Keep U.S. attorney on Easley probe

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., deserves credit for making the right call on U.S. Attorney George E.B. Holding. She's a Democrat, and with a Democrat in the White House, she gets to recommend candidates for federal judges and prosecutors. It's traditional for incoming parties to change such officials, and Holding, a Republican, is in a job whose term ends in 2010 unless replaced sooner.

But he's also the head prosecutor in the state's eastern district, which has handled a number of corruption cases involving Democratic public officials. He's now looking into the circumstances involving former Gov. Mike Easley and the free airplane rides he took, his close relationship and appointments he gave those who flew him, a good deal on coastal property he got with the help of one of those fliers, and a $170,000 job his wife got at N.C. State University, where one of the pilots was chair of the board of trustees until he resigned the other day. He's also looking into allegations involving former Sen. John Edwards and whether campaign contributions were funneled to a woman with whom he had an affair.

Hagan had begun the process of searching for candidates to replace Holding and other U.S. attorneys, but she has wisely put that process on hold to give the U.S. attorney's office time to complete the investigation. She has asked the White House not to replace Holding "until the conclusion of federal investigations into former Governor Mike Easley and former Senator John Edwards," her office announced.

She said, "Back in March, I announced the formation of a statewide review panel to help screen federal nominees of whom all North Carolinians, regardless of their political affiliation, will be proud. To uphold that promise, I called the White House yesterday to inform them of my recommendation that President Obama not replace Mr. Holding until the ongoing investigations into John Edwards and Mike Easley are completed. It is of the utmost importance to me, as well as to the people of North Carolina, that we ensure this process is carried out as transparently and honestly as possible.”

Several organizations, including the state Republican Party, the GOP legislative leadership and the Observer's editorial department, have called on the White House to leave Holding in charge while this investigation is going on. Hagan's request to the White House was the right move at the right time.

Perdue: Keep those records -- open

Gov. Bev Perdue promised a more transparent administration than previous governors, and see seems to be seizing on opportunities to show she meant it. Her predecessor, Gov. Mike Easley, made it difficult to get some records such as his travel records, which were withheld for security reasons by his administrtion. But Perdue ordered travel records made available to the News & Observer. The patrol furnished a lot of those records, with a curious exception: The year 2005. For some reasons those records appear to be missing, or at least were not turned over to the newpaper.

Perdue has said she's confident the Highway Patrol will find out what happened to the missing records, but just so no one misses the larger point, she has ordered the keeping of all records of the governor's and lieutenant governor's travels -- for four years after their terms, and then those records will go to the state archives.
"I’ve pledged to run an open and transparent administration,” said Perdue. “This new protocol will provide clear direction for how the State Highway Patrol executive security detail collects and retains travel records.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Next on the agenda: workplace smoking ban

The House chamber of the state Capitol -- where legislators met from the 19th century until the early 1960s -- sounded more like an old-timey political rally at midday Tuesday when Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. There were standing ovations, high-flown rhetoric and enthusiastic introductions as Democratic and Republican legislators watched the formal signing in to law of the state's first ban on smoking -- and thus second-hand smoke -- in public places.

True, it already has been unlawful to smoke in university and community college buildings as well as nursing homes and state government buildings. But this ban on smoking is the first to apply to places where generations of smokers went regularly to light up and enjoy themselves.

Perdue, who as lieutenant governor and chair of the state Health and Wellness Commission pushed for anti-smoking programs that would trim the state's costly overall bill to pay for the ill effects of smoke, signed the bill under the watchful gaze of perhaps the nation's most famous tobacco grower. On the wall at the southern end of the chamber is the portrait of George Washington -- recently relit by Capitol curators to make it easier to see in the sometimes-dim chamber.

Standing with Perdue were a couple of dozen legislators, including primary bills sponsors Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, and Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Scotland. Also nearby was former State Health Director Leah Devlin of Raleigh, who began pushing for no-smoking rules when she was head of the Wake County Health Department many years ago. Perdue gave her credit for convincing Perdue that the state must do more to protect its citizens from smoking and breathing smoke from others.

It's remarkable to older observers that North Carolina has come so far. In a state that, as Perdue put it, "was built on the backbone of tobacco," the state has moved slowly but steadily each year or so to protect its workers, its students, its children, its aging and now its public restaurant and bar customers from secondhand smoke.

It's worth remembering that until the election of Gov. Bob Scott, who died earlier this year, North Carolina did not even tax tobacco. Now, barely two generations later, it limits where people can smoke. And while Holliman's and Purcell's bill did not prohibit smoking in private workplaces other than restaurants and bars, the handwriting is on the wall. That time is coming. It won't be this session, or even next, but it's coming.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Managing Yadkin 'misconceptions'

Battle of the Yadkin: Managing "Misconceptions"

Not long ago the N.C. Senate approved legislation to set up a Yadkin River Trust that might eventually purchase or manage the hydroelectric generating plants on the Yadkin that Alcoa Power Generating owns and operates. That bill is now in the N.C. House. Alcoa is seeking a renewal of its federal power license, and recently the state Division of Water Quality approved a water quality certification for the firm -- despite Gov. Bev Perdue's reservations about Alcoa getting another permit to operate the projects. The issuance of that permit was curious, given her stated opposition. Gov. Perdue has formally intervened in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process.

Now MMI Associates, which speaks for Alcoa opponents, has sent along a press release that it says clears up "misconceptions" about Alcoa and the project. Among other things, it says the water quality certification doesn't mean the Yadkin's water quality is good: "Anyone who has seen the conditions placed on Alcoa to receive the certificate will realize it has done a clearly insufficient job of ensuring water quality on the Yadkin River over the last 50 years. The $240 million surety bond Alcoa must post to guarantee that financial resources are available to improve dissolved oxygen levels in the discharges of the hydroelectric turbine system is unprecedented. It occurred because the state wants to ensure that Alcoa can actually pay what it promises to do in improvements, which ought to tell you something about the state’s confidence in the company’s financial stability."

For more, go to the Web site of the N.C. Water Rights Coalition at

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mike Easley: High-flying governor

If you missed the weekend series "Executive Privilege: The Perks of Power" in the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer Saturday and Sunday, be sure to take a look online. Written by Andrew Curliss and edited by the veteran Steve Riley, it is an eye-opening account of what happens when a powerful politician forgets his roots and enjoys the perquisites that come with high power and well-heeled friends. In this case, it's about former Gov. Mike Easley, who grew up in Eastern N.C. and cut his political eyeteeth prosecuting corrupt politicians in the 1970s and 80s in Southeastern N.C., then became N.C. attorney general and finally governor for eight years.

Somewhere along the way, it appears Easley lost his sense of proportion and started enjoying the high life. He accepted a lot of favors from friends that he ought to have kept more distance from, and failed to appreciate that ordinary North Carolinians would wonder how he could get so far above his raisin'. He doled out appointments to close friends who seemed to do him favors, and who then boosted their business by bragging on their connections. He took aircraft flights here, there and yonder while the state Highway Patrol protected his travels from public scrutiny. His wife got a lucrative job at N.C. State University under strange circumstances. And he bought a pricey lot on the coast at a cost many investors would have loved to have gotten -- at the time.

No one knows how far this story is going or what it might produce, but at a minimum it is clear that an investigation is in order, if for nothing more than to clear the air. The U.S. Attorney's office in Raleigh has declined to say whether it is investigating, although it seems evident the justice department is interested. So is the N.C. Board of Elections. If these two agencies aren't spooling up for a full-fledged investigation, the question is: why not?

Friday, May 08, 2009

What will a Sen. Blue mean in Senate?

Although Dan Blue had some personal reservations about whether he wanted to move from the House to the Senate, he evidently has resolved those issues in his own mind. Blue, the former House speaker and legislative veteran, wasn't sure he wanted to move over from the House when I spoke with him Tuesday.Since then, the party has recommended him for succeeding the late Sen. Vernon Malone, D-Wake, and by law the governor must follow that recommendation.

One concern of Blue’s is the Senate's brisk debates, which often seem shorter than one might expect. A key reason for that is related to a strong caucus system in the Senate, as well as its longtime leadership with President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, now in his ninth term leading the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand. On the one hand the Senate is a model of efficiency; on the other, a lot of legislators, Democrats and Republicans, privately feel stifled. Basnight's wife died in 2007 and his restaurant in Nags Head burned to the ground before being rebuilt, and some observers believe he might hang it up after this term. But he's a savvy and highly successful politician, and my guess is he'd win reelection as long as he runs.

Blue's move to the Senate is especially interesting now. He represents a potential challenge to the leadership. As a former presiding officer of the House, he'll have his own ideas about how the Senate should be run and how debate should go. And if Blue has plans to change things, he'll certainly find allies. Among them might be Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, who was in the House for years with Blue before moving to the Senate. Nesbitt has a populist streak, asks a lot of questions about how things are done, and reflects the independence that many mountain lawmakers have brought with them to Raleigh. With Blue in the chamber, there might be a few more internal challenges.

Gary Pearce has an interesting take about all this at his and Carter Wrenn's blog, Among them: the possibility that Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, might benefit: "Dan Clodfelter might position himself as a moderate alternative to both sides."

Alcoa gets water permit, state files motion

Bruce Henderson had the story this morning about Alcoa getting a state water quality permit, the last step before getting a federal renewal of its license to operate the Yadkin River hydroelectric plants. Here's the company's announcement:

North Carolina approves water quality certificate for Yadkin Project, clears the way for FERC to issue Alcoa a long-term license
RALEIGH (MAY 7, 2009) – The N.C. Division of Water Quality today issued Alcoa Power Generating Inc. a required water quality certificate for the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project. The action clears the way for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to issue a new long-term license for the Yadkin Project.
“Obtaining this water quality certificate was the last major milestone in the relicensing effort that we began in 2002,” said Gene Ellis, APGI licensing and property manager. “We hope FERC will now move quickly to issue a new long-term license for the Yadkin Project so that we can begin implementing the important benefits in our relicensing settlement agreement.”
Once FERC issues a new long-term license for the Yadkin Project, APGI will begin implementing the relicensing settlement agreement that it negotiated with state and federal agencies, local governments, homeowners and recreational users, business organizations, environmental interest groups and others. The agreement will improve water quality in the Yadkin River, create new recreational opportunities around the lakes, better protect the water supply during drought, provide for increased water withdrawals by local municipalities and set aside land for conservation purposes.
A day earlier, Stanly County posted a couple of items about the ongoing campaign to recapture the license and have the state operate the hydro projects. Here are a couple of items Bruce Thompson passed along, including a link to the state's 90-page motion to intervene in the case before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission:
This is to notify you that the State of North Carolina has today filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") a "Motion of Intervenor, the State of North Carolina, by and Through its Governor, Beverly Eaves Perdue, for Approval of a Reasonable Schedule to Present Evidence to Assist the Commission in its Determination of Alcoa's Re-Licensing Application and of the State's Request that the United States Recapture the License for a Public Use" in FERC docket number P-2197-073 (Alcoa Power Generating, Inc. - Yadkin Hydroelectric Project). You can access the State's Motion on-line by going to the FERC website under Documents and Filing - see

Just in case you have problems obtaining an on-line copy of the State's Motion from FERC, I am also attaching hereto a courtesy copy of the State's Motion.
Should you have any questions concerning this email message, its attachment or anything else, please let me know.
My contact information is as follows:

I. Faison Hicks
Special Deputy Attorney General
North Carolina Department of Justice

And U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell and five other N.C. congressmen -- Brad Miller, David Price, Bobby Etheridge, Mike McIntyre and G.K. Butterfield, -- have written FERC asking it to allot plenty of time for the state to make its case why the license renewal should be denied and why it should support recapture.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A fourth of N.C. workers unprotected by smokefree policies

A spokesperson for the NC Alliance for Health and the American Cancer Society point out that a Senate committee's new version of a workplace smoking ban bill probably does not protect a lot of workers in private workplaces in this state, though hard numbers are difficult to come by.

A spokesperson for the groups said Wednesday that the new version of H2, which mostly protects workers (and customers) in bars and restaurants from secondhand smoke, may cover less than 7 percent of all businesses in this state. That's according to a 2002 U.S. Census survey. And a 2007 survey showed that more than one fourth of all N.C. workers are not covered by a smokefree workplace policy.

Here's the data:

Based on data from US Census 2002, restaurants and bars account for approximately 6.6 % of all businesses in NC. Those indoor worksites would be protected from secondhand smoke exposure under the current Senate version on HB2. All of the remaining indoor private worksites may or may not have an existing voluntary policy to regulate smoking.

According to 2007 BRFSS (Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) data, 26.8% of all workers in NC are not covered by a smokefree workplace policy. This percentage not covered by a policy is much greater in blue-collar workers and service workers compared to white-collar workers.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fox became a high price for Perdue

If you read Mark Johnson's story on the racist e-mail sent from state ABC board chairman Doug Fox's e-mail account at his law firm, or heard about Gov. Bev Perdue demanding and getting his resignation Tuesday, you know that Fox brought a lot of trouble on himself.

But Fox has been a problem for her more than a year, beginning last year when liquor lobbyists urged potential campaign contributors to give money to Perdue so they could keep Fox as chairman of the board. Mark Johnson and Lynn Bonner had that story, too.

Nearly a year ago, here's what we had to say about this mess on May 2, 2008:


Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue has a problem on her hands and she isn't even governor yet. She isn't even the Democratic nominee for governor. Voters will finish determining the winner of that race on May 6. But her problem is the appearance that the liquor industry has expectations of a deal that if she's elected she will reappoint a favored chairman of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, giving those who sell and distribute hard liquor some advantages now enjoyed by the beer and wine industries.

That expectation was outlined in a Feb. 14 e-mail message to liquor industry figures from Paul Criscuolo, vice president of Southern Wine & Spirits in Miami. Mr. Criscuolo's e-mail said it was important to the business that Lt. Gov. Perdue be re-elected, and asked recipients to contribute to her campaign, report McClatchy Newspapers' Mark Johnson and Lynn Bonner.

"It is vital that Lt. Governor Perdue wins the Democratic nomination and then captures the Governorship if this needed reform will take place," Mr. Criscuolo wrote. "If this happens, Chairman Fox should be reinstated. With that we can envision off-premise tastings ."

The e-mail, reported by the News & Observer last month, prompted Lt. Gov. Perdue's campaign to announce it would refuse such contributions. Campaign lawyer John Wallace wrote to Mr. Criscuolo that his statements were "unacceptable." The campaign has returned more than $5,000 in liquor industry contributions.
Two weeks ago Mr. Fox held a "campaign event" for Lt. Gov. Perdue at his home. Ms. Perdue has said the event was not a campaign fundraiser, but rather a "meet and greet."

Candidate Perdue is entitled to meet anyone she chooses. But in an era of heightened awareness following corruption cases that have sent a former state senator, former agriculture commissioner and former speaker of the House to federal prison, surely she recognizes the implications of her decision to make Mr. Fox part of her campaign itinerary. It sends a public message that she is comfortable with an industry that has tried to raise money for her election under the assumption she'll help that industry.

There's nothing new about this kind of "pay to play" politics in Raleigh. The legislature has taken steps to crack down on the cozy fundraising relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers, but some folks still don't get it.

In this case, the liquor industry wants the right to give away free drinks - promotional rights that beer and wine already can use to promote their products. Mr. Fox backed a policy change last fall allowing such promotions for liquor, but rescinded it after the Observer inquired about the arrangement.
If Lt. Gov. Perdue believes such promotions would be good public policy and keeping Mr. Fox in exchange for the industry's support is a wise move, she should say so now so the public will know her plans. Better yet, she ought to make a decision that next January would be a good time for a new state ABC chairman.

Senate move must weigh on Blue

Former House Speaker Dan Blue of Raleigh, D-Wake, a longtime member of the state House of Representatives, is a leading candidate for the N.C. Senate vacancy caused by the recent death of Sen. Vernon Malone, D-Wake.

Dome reports today that Blue not only won a straw poll by the influential Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association Saturday, but he was also formally endorsed Monday night by the group. That would put Blue in a strong position to move from the House to the Senate, an action many politicians would jump at.

But is Blue all that interested? Blue, after all, is a creature of the state House, where he first came to political prominence, developed an excellent reputation as a legislator and in 1991 became the first African American speaker of the state House. He is in his 14th term in the House, and he has never regarded a state Senate seat as a move up the political ladder.

He has some reason to feel that way. Senate terms, like House terms, are for two years, so there's no advantages as there is with the six-year U.S. Senate terms compared to U.S. House two-year terms. There are 50 members of the state Senate, compared to 120 members of the House, and thus Senators arguably have a greater vote -- 1/50th of a decision, rather than 1/120th of a decision.

Blue ran once for the U.S. Senate, losing the 2002 Democratic primary to Erskine Bowles for the seat being vacated by Jesse Helms. He rejoined the House in 2006 when Gov. Mike Easley appointed him to a vacancy.

But there's something else Blue has to think about. While both the Senate and the House have political caucuses that guide legislators in their decision-making, the Senate has shorter debates and members often seem to vote along party lines -- Democrats especially, since they're in charge and hold a majority of the votes. But the House often seems more deliberative. One reason may be there are a lot more members, and it's difficult to enforce a caucus position on members. But current House Speaker Joe Hackney allows more debate on issues, and Republican Leader Skip Stam, R-Wake and his party seem to get more opportunity to contribute to the debate, though I don't know if they win any more often than their Senate colleagues.

All that must be weighing on Blue's mind as he ponders whether to try to make the move to the Senate.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Fast Cary Allred's 'reverse favoritism'

State Rep. Cary Allred, the Alamance County Republican who was cited Friday for driving 102 mph while on his way to a Monday night legislative session a week ago, calls the Highway Patrol's issuing of a ticket five days after he was stopped "reverse favoritism." Now, there's a political phrase likely to follow a politician to the end of his days!

Allred, you may recall, is the object of a House inquiry into his conduct after reports that he'd showed up at the legislature that night with alcohol on his breath (just one drink, he said); kissed a House page (turns out she's a neighbor, he said) and daughter of friends (more like a granddaughter, he said); and the kiss was platonic (only a peck on the cheek, he said); and had a couple of tense exchanges with House Speaker Joe Hackney at the Monday night session (the speaker is on a witch hunt, he said).

Allred is a legislative character in an institution that seems to have fewer of them every year. When my colleague Ben Niolet of the N&O interviewed him the other day, Alllred was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a suit and no socks. (Don’t miss the picture.) His behavior lately has generated a lot of mirth, and at least one limerick from a local lawyer, Terence McEnally:

Allred, start acting your age!
Your speeding, your boozing, your rage!
We won't continue our blindness
to your uncouthness and unrefined-ness
Find your socks! Stop squeezing your page!

It's too bad the Observer's editorial department limerick contest is over. But if you've got a printable limerick on this topic, send it along.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Battle of the Yadkin: Word skirmishes

Both sides in the Battle of the Yadkin fired Friday over a legislative proposal aimed at opposing the Alcoa Power Generating hydroelectric plants. First, this from the Water Right Committee, and then one from Gene Ellis, Alcoa's property manager here.

N.C. Senate Finance Committee Overwhelmingly Backs Bipartisan State Bill Endorsing Creation Of Yadkin River Trust
N.C. Water Rights Committee Commends Near-Unanimous Vote For Supporting Measure Benefiting State’s Economic And Environmental Future
RALEIGH, N.C. – The N.C. Water Rights Committee ( is commending the Senate Finance Committee for its overwhelming vote of 27-2 in favor of Senate Bill 967 for the creation of the Yadkin River Trust on April 29. The bill now moves to the full Senate for a final vote among all members. A similar bill is moving through the N.C. House.
Sponsored by state Sen. Fletcher L. Hartsell, Jr. (R-Cabarrus), the bill for the Yadkin River Trust is the same plan the N.C. Water Rights Committee proposed in January as the State Trust Concept, which calls for a Trust to own and manage the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project of North Carolina citizens. The Yadkin River Trust addresses three key issues associated with relicensing the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, which includes powerhouses and dams at High Rock, Tuckertown, Narrows and Falls Reservoirs in Stanly, Davidson, Rowan and Montgomery counties: water control, job creation and environmental cleanup for the areas involved.
The Trust will honor aspects of the Relicensing Settlement Agreement (RSA) negotiated by local government and environmental groups in 2009, including water for the City of Albemarle, a comprehensive drought management plan (the “Low Inflow Protocol”), water quality improvements for the Yadkin, and new and expanded public recreation facilities. However, the Trust will provide more benefits to North Carolina state residents than what the RSA proposes, such as assurances that the license will not be sold for profit to any company, including foreign interests. The current license holder for the Project, Alcoa Power Generating Inc. (APGI), has a working agreement with Chinalco, China’s state-owned metals and mining company, and should it receive another 50-year license for monopoly control of the Project through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has received an application from APGI, the firm can easily sell the license to Chinalco or another entity for millions in profit while the terms of the license would transfer to the new owner without having to file a new federal application.
The bill also establishes a Board of Directors of seven members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly to oversee the Yadkin River Trust and carry out its goals and activities. At least two of the directors will have substantial work experience within the operations of electric cooperatives or investor-owned utilities or substantial experience on an electric cooperative board or investor-owned utility board but must not serve as an employee or board member of an electric cooperative or investor-owned utility during their term as a director.
If approved in this session of the General Assembly, the bill would go to Gov. Bev Perdue for signing into law. Gov. Perdue has previously indicated her concerns about APGI’s ownership of the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project. The FERC has allowed the governor to intervene in APGI’s license renewal and allow for the state to recapture its water rights, pending approval from the federal government.
Currently APGI needs a 401 Water Quality Certification from the N.C. Division of Water Quality (DWQ) along with the FERC license in order to continue to operate the four dams in the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project as it has done since its first 50-year licensing from the FERC in 1958. The DWQ decision has been delayed at least until May 7 due to a Feb. 11 study that found fish in Badin Lake had unsafe levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and has prompted further water quality tests to determine the origin and extent of the PCBs. If APGI receives a DWQ certification and the FERC license, it will have an exclusive monopoly on water rights to conduct hydroelectric operations on the upper Yadkin River for another 50 years, and the opportunity to make millions in profits selling electricity generated from waters belonging to North Carolina citizens.
Besides the N.C. Water Rights Committee, other groups on record as opposing APGI’s operation of the Project include the Stanly, Davidson, Randolph, Iredell, Anson, Cabarrus and Union County Boards of Commissioners, as well as the Centralina Council of Governments. The Yadkin Riverkeeper® and the N.C. Wildlife Federation have endorsed the State Trust Concept the N.C. Water Rights Committee proposed that has been adapted for this bill.

And there was this from Alcoa:

One day after Gov. Perdue announces furloughs, N.C. Senate considers spending $500 million to take Alcoa's private property
By Gene Ellis, Licensing and Property Manager, Alcoa Power Generating Inc.
I spent Wednesday afternoon down at the N.C. General Assembly, where the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation that would pave the way for the State of North Carolina to take our privately-owned dams along the Yadkin River.
Many of the Senators asked good questions. Fundamental questions like “Why do we need to do this?” and specific questions about how the state would operate a hydropower plant.
But no one raised the obvious question: How can our state legislators even contemplate spending $500 million of taxpayer money to take a privately-owned business ... just one day after Gov. Perdue announced mandatory unpaid furloughs for all state employees and school teachers?
North Carolina is facing a $3.2 billion budget shortfall and the pain is being felt by families across North Carolina. Our school teachers are being forced to sacrifice a portion of their salary… healthcare and education spending is being slashed … new taxes are being proposed. And yet no one seems to be overly concerned about the potential price tag that comes with a government takeover of Alcoa's dams.
Granted, there are a lot of different opinions about what a government takeover will really cost. Alcoa is confident that the cost would exceed $500 million, but even the conservative estimate offered in a draft fiscal note prepared by Senate staff pegged the likely cost at almost $200 million, not including the cost of required upgrades that could add another $200 million to the price.
What sort of message does this send to North Carolina families who are tightening their belts to make ends meet? As people struggle with financial challenges – whether it’s cutting back on vacations and summer camps for their kids, or dipping into their 401k savings to pay the mortgage – the politicians in Raleigh don’t seem to have any hesitation about spending half a billion dollars to take over a few privately-owned dams.
It just doesn't make sense.
Read more at the Yadkin Project blog: