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House says no to state operating Yadkin dams

Staff and wire reports
The N.C. House voted Thursday to reject a bid by the state to win a federal license to operate a series of dams Alcoa Inc. controlled for decades.
The House voted 66-39 to reject creating a state corporation that would acquire and control the four dams on the Yadkin River. The water backed up by the dams makes High Rock Lake.
Both of Rowan County’s representatives, Democrat Lorene Coates and Republican Fred Steen, voted in favor of the bill. Each representative noted that House members from the immediate area voted for the bill, while those from other parts of the state largely opposed it.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell.
Both Coates and Steen said they felt the fact that the legislative session was winding to a close influenced some legislators to vote against the bill.
“When you’re running bills through on the last day of a session, skeptics appear everywhere,” Steen said.
Coates said emotions factored into the vote.
“There was a lot of sentiment opposed to the state taking over a private enterprise,” she said.
But she said a number of people forget five years or so ago when Alcoa allowed High Rock Lake to virtually dry up one summer.
“If you think it’s not about water, it is,” she said. “I only hope that something positive comes out of this.”
The vote was a blow to Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration and its support of the bill. The administration has been fighting Alcoa’s efforts to renew a federal license it held since 1958 to operate the dams, which powered an aluminum plant that once employed hundreds.
The plant is now closed, but Alcoa earns millions of dollars selling the electricity. Alcoa’s opponents say another big issue is who will control the water supplying 2 million residents for decades.
Steen said he was opposed to Alcoa’s continued control of the dams in part because when the agreement was reached in 1958, the company employed more than 900 workers. Only about 15 remain today, he said.
“We’re allowing a private enterprise to operate our public water,” Steen said.
Gene Ellis, a spokesman for Alcoa, said the company was pleased with the vote.
“Legislators sent a clear message that they do not support the taking of private business,” he said. “The more they learned about this issue, it became evident that passing this legislation would set a dangerous precedent for North Carolina.”

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