Alcoa says water quality improving

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2011

In a report submitted last week to the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Alcoa Power Generating said water leaving its series of lakes and dams on the Yadkin River met a state standard for dissolved oxygen levels 99.9 percent of the time in 2010.
And the company says that upgrades it would make if awarded a new license to operate the dams would further improve oxygen levels.
But an Alcoa critic calls the report “misleading” and says the company is not meeting the state’s requirement to prove it did not intentionally withhold damaging information in its pursuit of a new federal license to operate the dams.
Alcoa has been working several years to secure a new 50-year federal license but hit a stumbling block in December when the state Division of Water Quality revoked a key certification, saying the company had “intentionally withheld information on the project’s ability to meet the state’s water quality standards for dissolved oxygen.”
An adequate amount of oxygen in the water is necessary to support healthy aquatic life, and many states monitor dissolved oxygen levels as one way to help measure water quality in lakes and rivers.
Officials with the company have vowed to prove the state wrong. Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer, recently told the Post the company would “provide hard documentation” that its permit should not have been revoked.
In a posting Thursday on a blog devoted to the relicensing, Alcoa said the report submitted to the state shows water discharged from Falls Dam — the last in a series of four along the Yadkin — meets the “instantaneous dissolved oxygen standard” 99.9 percent of the time and the daily average dissolved oxygen standard 97.4 percent of the time.
Instantaneous measurements are obtained through samples recorded at 15 minute intervals at all the dams.
Alcoa says the instantaneous measurement at Falls has improved since 2008 and that water leaving its Narrows Dam — the third in the series of dams — met those dissolved oxygen standards 93.4 percent of the time last year, a 34 percent increase over 2007 levels.
“This report shows continued improvement of dissolved oxygen levels in water below the Narrows Dam and demonstrates that new technology installed at Narrows is successfully increasing dissolved oxygen levels in downstream waters,” Anton said in the blog post.
Dissolved oxygen levels at High Rock and Tuckertown, the first two dams in the chain, were lower than the others in 2010: High Rock met the state instantaneous standard 65.1 percent of the time, and Tuckertown met the standard 56.3 percent of the time.
Alcoa argues those lower readings could be due to yearly changes in water or weather conditions or the quality of the water entering High Rock. The company says water coming into High Rock meets the daily average dissolved oxygen standard 43.1 percent of the time.
If awarded a new federal license, Alcoa would spend $40 million installing technology at High Rock Dam to improve dissolved oxygen levels and up to $80 million throughout the project, the company said.
“We have made great progress and have every reason to believe the technology enhancements will continue to increase dissolved oxygen levels and allow the Yadkin Project to meet the state (dissolved oxygen) standard,” Anton said in the blog post. “Our commitment to reaching that goal has never been in question.”
But one critic does question Alcoa’s report. Dean Naujoks, with the river advocacy organization Yadkin Riverkeeper, calls it “misleading” and charges it “provides no new information to support Alcoa’s claims the company did not intentionally mislead state officials.”
Naujoks points out that state law requires dissolved oxygen standards be met at all four of the dams, while Alcoa says it meets the standard with water leaving the fourth and final dam.
He also says the state considers dissolved oxygen standards violated when levels drop below the standard for instantaneous measurement 90 percent of the time or daily average measurement 100 percent of the time.
So the decrease in compliance with the daily average is significant, Naujoks said in a press release. Alcoa “is correct in saying that this could be due to natural phenomena, but it certainly is not an improvement.”
Responding to Alcoa’s touting improvements over 2007 levels and promise of further dam upgrades, Naujoks said those improvements “should have been made years ago.”
“The percentage improvement since 2007 doesn’t matter if the discharge from three of the four dams is still violating the state’s dissolved oxygen standards as demonstrated in their own report,” he said. “The whole idea of the compliance schedule is to come into compliance, not just get better.”