A long-standing agreement that forms the basis of Alcoa's quest for a new 50-year license to operate dams on the Yadkin River is in question. One state agency that signed onto the agreement has pulled out and other signers are pondering the same thing.
Alcoa expected its application for a new federal hydropower license on the Yadkin River would be controversial. So right from the start, it rounded up 22 different business, community and environmental groups – as well as a few state agencies – to hammer out a settlement that would head off lawsuits that might slow the process down.
The 130-page "Relicensing Settlement Agreement" was signed in 2007 and promised a host of land and water improvements. In exchange, the signers promised not to speak ill of Alcoa's license effort. And the muzzle held tight – until now.
"We're a bit caught off guard here," says Alcoa vice president Kevin Anton, referring to a recent letter sent by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in which the state agency announces it is withdrawing from the settlement agreement.
Gordon Myers is the commission's executive director: "It was the view of the commission that they should press pause on this while these other issues are being resolved."
The "other issues" are two-fold: first, a new lawsuit from the state, with backing by Governor Pat McCrory, challenging Alcoa's claim to land beneath the Yadkin River; and second, the NC Division of Water Quality has twice denied a key certificate Alcoa needs in order to be granted a federal license.
Much of the tension ties to a series of internal emails uncovered during an earlier legal fight that seem to show Alcoa executives willfully deceiving state regulators about the quality of water running through its dams.
The NC Wildlife Resources Commission was particularly troubled by those emails. Its decision to withdraw from the settlement has sent a tremor through the environmental and conservation groups that signed on back in 2007, largely because the state was so gung ho about it.
"With the Wildlife Resources Commission no longer being a part, and the Governor and, presumably, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources no longer being at our side, it certainly changes things quite a bit," says Jason Walser of the Land Trust for Central North Carolina.
Walser says the board of the Land Trust for Central North Carolina voted last summer – in a divided outcome – to stay with the settlement because of thousands of riverfront acres Alcoa is promising to preserve for wildlife and recreation. But Walser says the board will likely revisit that vote by the end of this year.
Another environmental group - American Rivers - flatly refused to even discuss its participation in the settlement with WFAE.
But the Nature Conservancy still stands by the deal, says Eric Kreuger of the South Carolina chapter: "There were a lot of stakeholders that sat at that table and hammered out this agreement. It wasn't always easy, but there was a lot of hard work that went into crafting all of these agreements, and we don't feel inclined to go back and recreate it."
Kreuger admits he's troubled by emails that appear to show Alcoa executives deceiving state regulators, but he says the settlement requires the company to meet certain water quality standards. State and federal regulators are responsible to enforce those standards.
One of those regulators, the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has not formally withdrawn from the settlement, but says it's "exploring its options."
Even so, Alcoa's Kevin Anton sees no chance of the 2007 settlement unraveling and notes a few new groups have even signed on.
But the original goal of avoiding litigation hasn't worked out: Alcoa's application for a new hydropower license on the Yadkin River is now hung up by two lawsuits with the state of North Carolina.
Read the arguments from Alcoa and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission here.