Editorial: A new twist in dam saga

  • Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 12:25 a.m.

When Stanly County commissioners worked out a deal with Alcoa to drop the county’s opposition to the issuance of a state water quality certificate for the Yadkin hydroelectric project, it appeared a resolution to the dam relicensing fight might be at hand.

That impression was solidified a few weeks later when federal regulators rejected a New Hampshire firm’s bid to challenge Alcoa for a new 50-year license to operate the Yadkin River dams. In brief, the feds said the deadline had passed for New Energy Capital Partners to challenge Alcoa’s relicensing application.

But hold on. There’s another twist in the saga. Late last week, the state of North Carolina filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that essentially backs New Energy’s challenge against Alcoa’s renewal bid. The state action, brought by the Attorney General’s Office, requests that FERC withdraw its May 30 decision rejecting New Energy’s motion and allow the firm to intervene.

The state also objects to FERC’s refusal to give the state 90 days to study and respond to New Energy’s petition. If FERC won’t rescind its ruling outright, the state says, it should at least give the state an extension to respond to New Energy’s application, which it says “is meritorious and would substantially serve and promote the public interest.”

There’s no indication when FERC will respond, or how. But as for what’s at the center of this development, that’s pretty clear. The state argues that New Energy deserves consideration, in part, because “Alcoa’s ultimate goal may be or could be to use the commission to facilitate its efforts to obtain a new license and then sell the fully licensed project to a third-party buyer of its own selection for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

That’s not idle speculation. After gaining a new license for its Tapoco hydro project in eastern Tennessee in 2005, Alcoa last year sold the four dams on the Little Tennessee and Cheoah rivers for $600 million. It was a good deal for Alcoa, but Tennessee taxpayers won’t be swimming in additional revenues from it.

Alcoa officials have been noncommital on longterm plans for the Yadkin project, which has generated more than $40 million in annual revenues in recent years. Given how quickly corporations retool their brands and portfolios these days, that’s not surprising. But it’s also not reassuring. Even stakeholders who’ve supported Alcoa’s relicensing bid might have second thoughts if they believed ownership was about to shift to a conglomerate based in China, India or elsewhere. They’ve fought for concessions from Alcoa. A new owner might put hundreds of millions into Alcoa’s pockets. But where’s the payoff for N.C. residents, who own the watershed in perpetual trust?

Federal officials might not see a future ownership change as a relevant question. Bureaucratic timetables notwithstanding, it’s one state officials are right to raise.

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