Alcoa, speakers at odds over plans for Yadkin River’s future

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
ALBEMARLE ó An official with Alcoa Power Generating Inc. said Thursday night the company is dedicated to protecting the public health and environment of Stanly County and will never abandon its commitment to address any contamination related to its almost century-long aluminum smelting operation in Badin.
Gene Ellis, licensing and property manager for APGI, said on the separate issue of water being discharged from its dams on the Yadkin River, the company is confident the hydroelectric project is meeting state water quality standards.
Meanwhile, a parade of other speakers Thursday cited what they believe are serious water quality problems in the project and called on the state to either deny or delay a Section 401 certification.
The certification from the N.C. Division of Water Quality is needed before Alcoa’s federal license for the project can be renewed. Officials with the Division of Water Quality held the public hearing Thursday night, and a standing-room-only crowd packed into the meeting room of the Stanly County Board of Commissioners.
The state agency will keep the public comment period open until Feb. 13 and is supposed to render a decision by March 16.
Dr. John H. Rogers Jr., an environmental toxicologist from Clemson University, said his research shows numerous and ongoing water quality violations associated with dissolved oxygen levels, nutrients and sedimentation, among other things.
“The relicensing of this project should be denied in my opinion,” Rogers said, saying there are additional studies on fish and toxic contamination that must be analyzed.
In addition to the water quality debate, Alcoa’s years-long federal relicensing process has stirred a movement calling for the state to take over the project by placing it in a public trust.
This proposal would pay Alcoa a sum of money for its investment over the years but otherwise have the state and its taxpayers reap the benefits of selling the power.
This argument, promoted strongly by Stanly County officials and a group called the N.C. Water Rights Committee, says the water rights given to Alcoa under the original license in 1958 occurred with the understanding that Alcoa was using the project to provide power for its smelter and creating hundreds of jobs.
Now that the smelter is shut down and the jobs are gone, the state’s residents should not consent to giving away control or economic benefits of the project for another 40 or 50 years, the water rights advocates have said. That point was reiterated several times Thursday.
Dr. Steve Scroggins, a Winston-Salem resident and visiting professor of economics at Virginia Tech, compared Alcoa to a tenant who is living on the project in expiration of his lease.
As with any other landlord, he argued, the state should rent out the project to the highest bidder, and he suggested that the rental fee be $35 million or more. There’s more at stake than water quality, Scroggins said.
“This is not Alcoa’s money,” he added. “It’s our money, and we need it.”
Separately, the Environmental Review Commission is studying the impacts of granting Alcoa another license, and its report is due Feb. 1.
In Alcoa’s application documents, the company says the annual value of the power produced by the project is $43.6 million, while the company has annual operating costs of $28.3 million. Its estimated annual profit, according to the company’s numbers, is $8.4 million.
Relicensing opponents of Alcoa say the company’s smelting process led to thousands of tons of waste each year that were buried at various sites in Stanly County. Ellis said the company has been working with government environmental officials for 20 years in remediation of the sites.
Those issues are being addressed separately by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Ellis said, stressing again that water quality has not been affected.
Over the past six years, Ellis said, Alcoa’s independent consultants, studies and state data have all shown the project meets North Carolina water quality standards. The negotiated Relicensing Settlement Agreement among 23 stakeholders also will increase dissolved oxygen levels in the waters, Ellis said, adding that some steps already taken have increased levels.
A sampling of water discharged from the Narrows Dam, as requested by the state, showed in September 2008 that the operation is not discharging polluted water, Ellis said.
Of some 100 substances tested for, none are in violation of water quality standards, he said. In fact, most substances tested for were not detected in the water, Ellis added.
Tom Griffin, an attorney for Stanly County, disagreed and said there are contaminants in the water and that dissolved oxygen levels are a frequent and common problem that must be investigated more thoroughly.
“We know today we can’t certify,” Griffin told the Water Quality representatives. “Make your decision on as full plate of information.”
Representatives of the city of Salisbury attended the hearing but did not speak. They met earlier with Stanly County officials.
Salisbury has strongly challenged Alcoa during the relicensing on grounds that sediment caused by the High Rock Dam harms the city’s Yadkin River intake and causes flooding that threatens the raw water pump station and Grants Creek wastewater treatment plant.
Tom Lynch of Salisbury said the sediment issue at the city’s intake costs him as a taxpayer.
Lynch, who is on the Badin Shores Resort board, said he also has a problem with the fluctuating level of Badin Lake and could better accept it if Alcoa still employed hundreds of people.