Thursday, May 28, 2009

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.

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