My Turn by Ann Brownlee: Stop harassing Alcoa over lakes

  • Posted: Monday, August 26, 2013 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, August 26, 2013 11:29 a.m.
Ann Brownlee
Ann Brownlee

“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but usually manages to pick himself up, walk over or around it, and carry on.”

— Winston Churchill

Dean Naujoks’ recent column focused primarily on the state’s claim to ownership of the bed of the Yadkin River. That claim depends on this legal definition of navigability:

“A river is navigable for the purpose of title determination if it was used or was susceptible to being used in its natural and ordinary condition as a highway of commerce over which trade and travel were or may have been conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water at the time of statehood (NC 1789).”

The flaw in Naujoks’ opinion is that it’s been widely-accepted since at least 1815 that the Yadkin–Pee Dee River is not navigable above Cheraw, S.C. Two Yadkin Navigation companies were formed, in 1818 and 1855, to make improvements which would make the river navigable. Despite spending a good amount of money, neither succeeded.

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted surveys of the river in North Carolina in 1879 and 1887. They recommended that the upper Yadkin (from Salisbury to Wilkesborough) could be made navigable with improvements costing $444,653. However, they found that the entire section of the river from Salisbury to the South Carolina line was “unworthy of improvement.”

In 1958 the Federal Power Commission stated that the lower section of the Yadkin–Pee Dee River had not been determined to be a navigable water of the United States, “and we do not now find that stretch to be navigable.”

Aware of overwhelming information to the contrary, the Uwharrie Regional Resources Commission (URRC), stacked with proponents of a state takeover of Alcoa’s Yadkin Project, passed the resolution Naujoks’ referred to, and have taken other actions to promote its state takeover agenda. It’s no wonder the state House, which defeated the Yadkin River Trust Legislation in 2009 by a vote of 66 to 39, disapproved of the URRC’s actions and dissolved the commission.

Naujoks asked Alcoa to produce “the deed,” as if there were only one. I’ve asked. Alcoa has a room full of five-drawer filing cabinets containing its deeds. Were they supposed to trot them all out because Naujoks told them to?

The public has a right to access the waters of the Yadkin River, under public trust doctrine, to boat, swim, fish and enjoy other recreational activities. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (not Alcoa) must approve all water withdrawal permits over one million gallons per day in the Yadkin Project area. Alcoa’s license does not jeopardize either of these rights. In fact, the terms of their new license will improve water quality and recreational access and facilities; guarantee higher lake levels and a longer recreational season; support larger water withdrawals by Albemarle and Stanly County; provide greater flexibility for lakefront property owners; protect wildlife habitat, water safety, and historic resources; and provide for significant land conservation around the Project lakes.

As far as environmental cleanup is concerned (outside the project area), Alcoa is awaiting approval from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources to complete the remediation of their final three areas of concern. They will continue monitoring, but will soon have nothing more to clean up. I wish all the creators of the state’s thousands of brownfields would do as much.

In a country which practices capitalism and free enterprise, there’s nothing wrong with making a profit, in Alcoa’s case, for its stockholders. If they don’t they go out of business. Naujoks’ Alcoa-bashing has been nothing short of anti-business, and has created a climate that drives away the jobs we need.

It’s time to stop harassing Alcoa with specious accusations and lawsuits. Twenty-five stakeholders, including the four counties around the Yadkin Project lakes, environmental and conservation organizations, state agencies from both Carolinas, and homeowner and business groups support Alcoa’s Relicensing Settlement Agreement. We’d like to see the benefits to our area begin.

Ann Brownlee lives in Salisbury.

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