Thursday, December 16, 2010

Perdue: Not interested in talking to Alcoa

If you've kept up with a long-running dispute over whether Alcoa Power Generating Inc. will get another federal license to operate hydroelectric power plants on the Yadkin River in central North Carolina, you know that a water quality permit hearing suddenly stopped a few weeks ago when lawyers for Stanly County opponents asked about some e-mails they found indicating that company officials and consultants knew about water quality problems at one of Alcoa's dams but did not tell the state. A few days later the state withdrew its water quality certification for the relicensing, which Alcoa needs to get another federal license, saying Alcoa had deliberately hidden important information.

My colleague Lynn Bonner of the N&O and I met with two Alcoa officials Wednesday to hear what they had to say. You can read her story here.  Alcoa Vice President Kevin Anton said he was visiting North Carolina because "We didn't like where things were progressing here in North Carolina" and added, "It was time for a new approach." Anton said he hoped to talk with Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, who once headed a group opposed to Alcoa before he took his post in the Perdue administration, among other N.C. leaders.

Anton and Mike Belwood, Alcoa's director of media and corporate relations, came to see whether there's a way to resolve the dispute, and they're talking to a lot of folks and doing a lot of listening. For a long time North Carolina worked with Alcoa to relicense the dam, but late in Gov. Mike Easley's administration, he decided to oppose the new license, and Gov. Bev Perdue has followed the same approach. I thought Alcoa's conciliatory approach after several years of some hard-nosed verbal punching from both sides might resonate with some state officials, but Gov. Bev Perdue doesn't appear to be one of them.

Reporters met with Perdue at the Executive Mansion today to talk about a number of issues, and I asked whether she'd be open to a settlement of some kind.  It doesn't sound like it.  Perdue said her stance on Alcoa and the river came from her gut; she believes that the 1958 license Alcoa won with the state's support was based in large measure on the big workforce Alcoa had here at that time. At one point Alcoa employed 1,000 workers at its aluminum works here.  Now the smelter is closed for good, almost all the jobs are gone, and giving the company another license to control the river's waters, without a corresponding economic benefit such as a large employment base, is wrong, she said. She wasn't interested in talking to Alcoa, and didn't think her Secretary of Commerce would be, either, she said.

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