Cook column: Yadkin’s fate sets off flood of emotions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 30, 2009

Documents related to Alcoa’s bid for relicensing its hydroelectric project on the Yadkin River are accumulating on desks everywhere ó in Albemarle, Salisbury, Raleigh and Washington, D.C.
That includes a few desks at the Salisbury Post.
Stanly County Commissioner Lindsey Dunavent and banker Roger Dick have shared copies of the Federal Power Act, handouts quoting Teddy Roosevelt and FDR on the control of rivers, and excerpts from conservationist books on river rights.
The materials challenge the notion that relicensing is a virtually automatic process, or that Alcoa should feel entitled to continue to generate power with the river’s help.
“Rivers at Risk,” a handbook on how to influence government decisions about hydropower development, is among the Stanly officials’ sources. The 1989 publication puts the recent objections to Alcoa’s relicensing into context.
“Relicensing provides an opportunity to conduct a proper environmental review of a completed project and to change its structure or operation to protect, mitigate and enhance environmental and recreational values.
“Since the owner already has had the opportunity to fully amortize the investment in the project, the owner has no right to expect that business will continue as usual. In a sense, relicensing involves the return of river resources to the public.”
The return of the river.
– – – Calvin Barringer of Richfield brought in a document of sorts, too ó a letter that is too long for publication in the Post.
We’re sticklers about the 300-word limit and counted more than 800 in his letter.
Suffice to say Calvin is as passionate about protecting the Yadkin River waters as anyone, but that doesn’t pit him against Alcoa. He worked for the company as a machinist for 35 years.
Calvin is not convinced the state or Stanly County would take better care of the water that flows through the region.
Here’s an excerpt from his letter:
“Alcoa ó a name in the community for many years. A name in my family for over four generations. …
“Although Alcoa has stopped making aluminum, they continue to support their community. They sponsor students from the high schools and colleges each year. They continue to be a presence just like they always have been. …
“Alcoa has always been a friend to our community. Sometimes we don’t see things that they do. But if you’ve ever been fishing and noticed how clean the area is and that the trash cans are always emptied, that’s Alcoa.
“Alcoa is a company name; it’s not Mr. Alcoa ó a person, as some would have us believe. There are many stockholders in the company residing in Stanly and surrounding counties. The question that comes to my mind, and to some others is, how can the county take land that Alcoa holds deeds to? …
“I don’t believe that the people of Stanly County should allow a few to sway them in their thinking of just who Alcoa is! Alcoa is a company that cares about its community ó and they always have. … They want to provide you with a safe place to fish and hunt, just like always, without fees. They want to continue financially supporting the schools, the businesses and the people in the community. Will Stanly County government do these things? We should be careful what we wish for.”
Careful what we wish for.
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The only insight I have to add is that the deeper you get into investigating the relicensing issue, the more complicated it becomes.
It’s easy to understand these reactions ó “This is our water” vs. “Alcoa has been good to us.” But they don’t answer the questions that matter. Such as, if it’s our water, which one of “us” gets to control it ó Stanly County, the state or some agency? If relicensing is not granted, who will come up with the money to pay Alcoa for its assets? And what is the real motivation here? Stanly County is investing heavily in wrestling control away from Alcoa.
Let’s go back to “Rivers at Risk.” Though it was published 20 years ago, it speaks clearly to today’s debate:
“The public can and should participate in the relicensing process. Indeed, if the public does not participate, business is likely to proceed as usual. … Relicensing of each project will consume several years, and it is important that the public get involved in the process at the earliest stages.”
The early stages have passed, but the involvement is still building.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.