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State asks feds not to rule on Alcoa’s relicensing

A letter sent Wednesday by the N.C. Department of Justice to federal regulators represents the latest in a complicated legal saga that began years ago.

Despite awarding Alcoa a water quality permit last week, state government is now asking federal regulators not to consider the company’s request for a 50-year, dam-operating license until a lawsuit wraps up. The state’s request came in the form of a letter from the N.C. Department of Justice to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would make a final decision on whether Alcoa can receive a new 50-year operating license for its dams on the Yadkin River.

The dams in question sit at the High Rock, Tuckertown and Narrows and Falls reservoirs.

In the letter, Special Deputy Attorney General I. Faison Hicks cites a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals lawsuit over riverbed ownership as a reason for federal regulators not to make a decision on Alcoa’s license.

“The State of North Carolina hereby respectfully notifies the commission of the fact that the question who … holds legal title to the bed of the approximately 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that is encompassed by the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project is still being actively litigated in the federal courts,” Hicks writes.

Lawyers for the state of North Carolina only just introduced the riverbed lawsuit into federal court this month, when filing an appeal to a U.S. District Court ruling by Terrence Boyle. In late September, Boyle dismissed the lawsuit. At points during the suit, Boyle called the state’s legal actions a “thinly veiled power grab” and said North Carolina was acting like a “banana republic.”

Alcoa’s relicensing request dates back to 2006. Opposition came shortly after.

In 2007, the company closed its Badin Works aluminum smelter in Stanly County. When the plant closed, the company continued using dams to generate energy and has collected more than $175 million by selling electricity to commercial customers.

During the U.S. District Court case, Boyle questioned whether the lawsuit was intended to punish Alcoa for closing Badin Works.

On Oct. 13, the N.C. Department of Justice filed an appeal to Boyle’s ruling

A ruling in Wake County Superior Court compelled the state to grant Alcoa a water quality certificate, required before heading to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was seen as a final step before getting a thumbs-up from federal regulators.

Wednesday’s letter poses the potential to stall relicensing longer.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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