RFK Jr. meets with Yadkin Riverkeeper over Alcoa situation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 3, 2011

By Mark Wineka
BADIN — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Thursday the ongoing citizen-based efforts to challenge Alcoa’s federal relicensing and make it accountable for its past pollution represent a classic story of democracy in action.
Kennedy took a brief tour of Badin Lake Thursday afternoon with Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, who said analysis of samples taken this summer for his nonprofit organization can link PCBs in lake mussels and fish to the shuttered Alcoa aluminum plant.
The findings also show that contaminated fish extend past Badin Lake and into the Falls Reservoir downstream, according to the riverkeeper.
“To me, this is a criminal enterprise,” Kennedy said of pollution that gets into the food chain and has the potential to affect the health of the unborn and children.
“This is worse than robbing a bank,” he said.
State agencies in North Carolina are in place to enforce water-quality laws, Kennedy said.
“There are real laws and real victims,” he added.
Kennedy is president of Waterkeeper Alliance and chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper in New York.
Time magazine named him one of its “Heroes of the Planet” for his work in restoring water quality to the Hudson River.
Kennedy also is clinical professor at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic and senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc. brought Kennedy into North Carolina Thursday, hoping to reap the same kind of public awareness benefits it saw last year when corporate pollution fighter Erin Brockovich appeared on its behalf.
Kennedy delivered a keynote address Thursday night at Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel, speaking on “The Green Gold Rush: A Vision for Energy Independence, Jobs and National Wealth.”
After his talk, he appeared at a $250-a-person cocktail reception at the Graylyn Conference Center in Winston-Salem, raising money for Yadkin Riverkeeper Inc.
“He’s an amazing advocate for clean water,” Naujoks said, adding Kennedy was excited to be on Badin Lake Thursday. “For me, it’s an honor to have him here. … He likes to come to the front lines to see what’s going on.”
Brockovich’s visit last year generated at least 40 news stories, Naujoks said. It’s ironic, but she is now fighting pollution by Alcoa in Australia, he said.
Kennedy has seen and fought the same kind of tactics on behalf of the Hudson River in his fights against General Electric, Naujoks said, but getting results in these kinds of fights can take years.
“It’s all about delays, stalling, stonewalling,” Naujoks added.
Naujoks said his organization’s most recent findings show that the state needs to do more testing for PCBs in Badin Lake. It also demonstrates that the public health threat is worse than previously thought and that Alcoa has a lot more cleaning up to do, Naujoks said.
“It’s sad for me to know there are fish that are contaminated,” he said.
Previously, the state issued a fishing advisory for Badin Lake in Stanly and Montgomery counties. It says elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), along with mercury, may be found in catfish and largemouth bass.
Pregnant women, women who may become pregnant and children under 15 should avoid eating the fish from Badin Lake, according to the advisory. Others should eat no more than a meal per week of the catfish and bass from the lake.
Naujoks said the testing of mussels in the lake was significant because it was done at end of one of 13 Alcoa discharge pipes into Badin Lake. Catfish and other aquatic life consume mussels.
High concentrations of PCBs in mussels translate to significantly harmful concentrations in fish, said Kennedy, who described it as a function of bio-accumulation.
Kennedy said he has been working on PCB-related issues for 30 years, and the contaminants can be “fingerprinted” to specific manufacturers.
Naujoks said the Riverkeeper’s testing of fish was limited because of cost — $1,000 a fish — but it also showed PCB-contaminated fish below the Narrows Dam, meaning the state should not be issuing a water-quality permit to Alcoa.
He said most boaters on Badin Lake catch and release their fish, but he worries more about the traditional shoreline fishermen who catch fish to put food on their tables.
Kennedy said he has spoken with some of the people, such as Roger Dick, who have been fighting Alcoa. Kennedy said he saw a community standing up to a huge corporation.
He approaches the Alcoa relicensing question — the company’s efforts to continue with the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project and sell power — from a perspective that waterways belong to the people, that everybody has a right to use them and no one should use them in a way that injures others.
Kennedy said people such as Dick, chief executive officer of Uwharrie Capital, might be conservative businessmen who have trusted governments to regulate and corporations to do the right thing.
When they personally witness the power of a corporation and see its influence on government, it hits them hard and moves them to action, Kennedy said.
The boat tour, captained by Jimmy Dick (Roger’s brother), took Kennedy and a small group of Riverkeeper supporters and media to the top of the dam so Kennedy could see the drop — and beautiful view — to the Falls Reservoir below.
The tour also stopped at a couple of old discharge areas, including a “brick yard” disposal site where contaminants from the smelter were mixed into the ground next to the lake.
Jimmy Dick said a “black ooze” seeped from the site into the lake, but that Alcoa often dressed up its dump sites later “to look pretty.”
“Lipstick on a pig,” he said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.