As Debate Lingers, Alcoa Looks Ahead

May 17, 2013

The controversy over Alcoa and its dams on the Yadkin River was back in the news this week. There were two public forums; one about the environment, the other about the company’s request for a water quality permit.  At the heart of this conflict is pollution, questions about control over hydro-electric dams, and the condition of one of the state’s most powerful natural resources, water.

For more than 100 years Alcoa has had a presence in Stanly County, about 50 miles northeast of Charlotte. For much of that time it was a great relationship and at one point more than a thousand people worked at the aluminum smelting plant. What remains today is an empty factory, four dams the company owns and uses to make and sell electricity, and an ongoing argument in this small rural community.

Here are the basics: Environmentalists and concerned residents say Alcoa is a bad steward of the river. According to the State, Alcoa is not yet meeting some water quality standards. And a government study found elevated levels of toxic PCBs in some fish. Earlier this week WUNC reported that Alcoa funded that study, but it did not. The company and other residents are quick to say that Alcoa will meet those water quality standards for dissolved oxygen levels once it finishes about $80 million in renovations to the dams. They also say PCB levels are on par with many other areas in the state. 

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This environmental debate is playing out as Alcoa has applied once again for a water quality permit from the state.  That permit would enable Alcoa to receive another long-term federal license to operate the dams; or, as many have speculated, to sell them. The aging dams, with a new long-term license, could be worth $500 million.

“They’re not meeting water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, they’ve made billions of dollars off of this river, all the jobs are gone, all the power leaves the state of North Carolina. It just doesn’t make any sense why the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would continue to support Alcoa in receiving this 50-year license,” said Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.

Naujoks would like to see the state conduct more testing for cyanide, arsenic and PCBs in ground water, soil and fish. But the company says these areas have been tested a sufficient number of times.

“So to continue to test, is really just spending money, government money over something that really is not needed anymore,” said Alcoa’s Relicensing Manager Ray Barham.

The state will continue to monitor areas around the former smelting plant for groundwater and soil contamination. Alcoa is focused on the future. The company recently reached a deal with Stanly County Commissioners after years of dispute. Alcoa gave the County three million dollars and 20 acres of land. A majority of the commissioners then voted to end their opposition to Alcoa’s request for the long-term license. Representatives with the company say the fighting made it difficult to redevelop the area around the old smelting plant.

“I think you will see more jobs come to the area as we get our license and this thing kind of dies down and the noise dies down on this issue,” said Barham.

The issue will likely remain noisy, at least for a few more months. This is Alcoa’s third time applying for the Water Quality Permit. Alcoa received a permit during its last application, but it was revoked following objections from environmentalists over dissolved oxygen standards. Ultimately the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will rule on the permit request. Gov. Pat McCrory has not yet said whether he supports the permit request.  The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is taking comments from the public until June. A decision is expected by the end of September.