Nearly 100 years ago Alcoa Incorporated began generating electricity by using dams along the Yadkin River about 60 miles South of the Triad. For decades that electricity was used to power Alcoa’s aluminum plant in Badin. The factory has long since closed, however, and today the electricity is sold on the open market. Alcoa owns the hyrdoelectric dams and is seeking another 50-year federal license to operate them – and continue selling power. Opponents of this effort are concerned about water quality and whether the damns should be more beneficial to the local and state economy. Jeff Tiberii reports.
Jeff Tiberii: Along the Yadkin River ospreys fly over head, the uninhabited Uwarrie National Forest hugs one side of the shore, and Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks pulls off the throttle on his boat - coming to a stop. there is a commanding sound. It’s like a cross between a million cicadas and a waterfall.
Dean Naujoks: Power of the river man … Running through those lines … What you can hear is the electricity that’s being created by the four major hydropower dams.
Simply put this electricity is worth billions of dollars. Alcoa wants another federal license to operate the damns, generate power, and sell it for the next half century. Their last license ran out in 2008 and since then they have operated on an annual permit while pursuing another 50-year license. But in order to receive a federal license they first need a water quality permit from the state. Naujoks is opposed.
Naujoks: There’s all sorts of buried contamination. There’s PCB’s that have been running into the lake, cyanide running into the lake. Alcoa needs to be held responsible for that, whatever the cost. And clean up its toxic waste that is has been leaving here for decades.
The River-keeper is joined in his opposition by the Governor’s administration and a majority of Stanly County commissioners. Alcoa’s stance is that some – not all – of the PCBs in Badin Lake came from when Alcoa was producing Aluminum. Kevin Anton is Chief Sustainability Officer for Alcoa.
Kevin Anton: It is a very well studied site. It has been studied by ALCOA, by DENR and by the E.P.A. In our country those are the organizations we’ve given the task of policing companies and policing the environment.
Anton says Alcoa has reached an agreement with the E.P.A. as well as the State Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to cap the lake. This means Alcoa will put down a bed of clay, several feet high, across five acres of Badin Lake in an effort to stop any further spread of PCB contamination. Now initially, the state granted a 401 water quality certification, but revoked it in December of 2010. The Division of Water Quality said Alcoa submitted an incorrect application and intentionally withheld information pertaining to water quality standards. Alcoa’s says it’s being overblown and they’re at more than 99-percent compliance of the standards in question at two dams. At two other dams Alcoa concedes upgrades are needed to meet wter quality standards. A judge is expected to rule next week whether Alcoa can apply for a new water quality certificate with, or without prejudice. The state declined comment for this story because of ongoing litigation. Meanwhile in the small town of Badin, about 50 miles northeast of Charlotte, where Alcoa has had an operation for nearly 100 years, the community is divided.
Macy Henson: When I was growing up my goal was to work at ALCOA one day because I knew they paid well.
65-year-old Macy Henson worked at Alcoa for 31 years.
Henson: Having retired from there and looking back and seeing some of the things that are going on now, they also did some things that are not correct. I think they should be held accountable for whatever is found by an independent investigator – not their own people.
Alcoa owns about 40-thousand acres of land in Stanly County, where the aluminum plant used to be. Jim Harrison is the mayor. He says this all has less to do with the environment and more to do with land use and the money at stake.
Jim Harrison: And with this deal what they’re trying to do to me, the folks that are involved with it, are trying to take it away from Alcoa, rather than buy it from Alcoa.
The company says it hasn’t received a fair offer from the state for the dams. They’re old, and Alcoa plans to invest $240 million for updates and improvements, should it receive a 50-year license. Alcoa says annual revenues from the electricity are between $8 and $10 million. But opponents contend the company is making more. Alcoa believes selling the dams with a long-term license could be worth about $400 million.
Tiberii: What is the future? If and(when) you get a 50-year license to you plan on being here for the next 50 years?
Anton: That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get to it. Right now we’re focused on getting the license, and then we’ll figure out the long-term.
In the short term this on-going debate about the money and the environment remains contentious. Alcoa needs a state water quality certificate before it can proceed. A long-term license is still, at least, a year away.