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Editorial: Two rivers, one concern

Considering that a federal hydroelectric license can extend 50 years into the future and governs use of a critical resource, there’s good reason to proceed with deliberation and take as much time as necessary to review and revisit any regulatory issues pertinent to license renewal.
That appears to be happening with two relicensing applications ó both of vital importance to North Carolina ó currently undergoing federal evaluation. One of those applications involves Alcoa’s ability to continue operating its dams along the Yadkin River, and it has generated legislative opposition as well as a public debate. At the same time, Duke Energy is seeking approval to renew its hydroelectric license for its reservoirs along the Catawba. While these two hydro projects are much different in geographic scale and the size of profits, they’ve raised parallel issues related to stewardship and environmental protections, and both of the relicensing applications have hit some choppy waters.
In Alcoa’s case, an administrative judge has issued a temporary restraining order that delays the state Division of Water Quality from issuing a water certification permit that must be in hand before federal regulators can renew Alcoa’s license. Stanly County officials and the Yadkin Riverkeeper had sought the restraining order, with support from the governor’s office, because of concerns about toxic contamination, including the presence of PCB-tainted fish in Lake Badin. Meanwhile, as Duke proceeds with its relicensing quest, it’s the feds themselves who want Duke to do more to protect the Catawba, especially regarding protecting riparian buffers.
Previously in this space, the Post has expressed its opposition to an outright state takeover of the Alcoa project, unless it evolves through a mutually agreeable sale. But that certainly doesn’t suggest that Alcoa should get rubber-stamp approval of its application. Nor have we ever sought to dismiss the serious environmental issues related to Alcoa’s management of the Yadkin power project. In fact, one of the obvious benefits already arising from the Alcoa debate is the increased scrutiny of water quality and management of the Yadkin, and the future water needs of a growing region. People are a lot more interested in the Yadkin River these days than in its quiet, meandering past, and that’s a healthy sign.
From the viewpoint of Alcoa Generating, the temporary restraining order represents an “unnecessary delay,” and it can attempt to make that case before a higher court, if it chooses to appeal. But if Alcoa is confident in its relicensing case, a fuller hearing on the water certification issues might well be to its benefit by assuring the public it will address lingering environmental concerns. Whether it’s Alcoa or Duke, the Yadkin or the Catawba, protecting the state’s rivers must be the top priority for state and federal regulators, and that’s a mission that can’t be rushed.

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