Alcoa has settled a long-standing dispute with a primary foe in its fight to maintain control of hydropower dams on the Yadkin River. Stanly County Commissioners voted Monday night to drop their legal challenges against Alcoa, which was a major employer in the region until closing its aluminum smelter in 2002.
Alcoa now makes a profit selling the electricity from those dams and Stanly County has long argued the public would be better served if those dams were under the state's control.
All Things Considered Host Mark Rumsey gets some analysis on the settlement from WFAE reporter Julie Rose.
RUMSEY: Julie, how do you explain Stanly County's change of tune?
ROSE: Well first off, it's been an expensive fight going back more than six years. Stanly County's already spent $5 million on lawsuits trying to block Alcoa from getting another 50-year federal license for its Yadkin River dams. The County's position has always been that the river belongs to the people, so the people should be benefiting from those dams in terms of jobs and economic development, rather than just having a private company benefiting from those dams.
Meanwhile, Stanly County is increasingly isolated in the fight. When it started years ago, Governor Mike Easley and then Bev Perdue were both very vocal about their opposition to Alcoa getting a new license on the river, too. But Governor Pat McCrory has not taken a clear position on the issue – which leaves Stanly County and a few environmental groups including the Yadkin Riverkeeper to fight the deep pockets and legal resources of Alcoa.
Also, Mark, keep in mind that elections happen and the sentiment of the county commission has shifted as new members have come on board. Last night's vote in favor of the settlement – it was 3 to 2 - pretty divided.
RUMSEY: Did Stanly County accomplish anything for all that time and money spent?
ROSE: They believe so. It was the county's lawsuit was the reason that evidence was uncovered showing Alcoa had apparently been misleading state water quality regulators . . . that led to the state revoking a key water quality certificate back in 2010. Alcoa had to start that process all over again. So that was a big win for the county and since then you could argue Alcoa's water quality and environmental record on the Yadkin River has been under a lot more scrutiny.
The settlement itself also includes some perks for Stanly County – it's getting $3 million from Alcoa and a promise of support if the county needs to request more water out of the Yadkin River some day.
In return, Stanly County pledges to fully support Alcoa's federal relicensing effort and commissioners promise not to say anything bad about Alcoa moving forward.