Alcoa's quest to get another 50-year operating license for its dams on the Yadkin River faces a key hearing Friday in Raleigh. The company no longer needs the dams for an aluminum smelter in Stanly County, but wants to continue selling the electricity for a profit. Governor Perdue and Stanly County officials hope to block Alcoa's license renewal. But WFAE's Julie Rose reports the process is going forward.
Before the federal government will consider issuing another hydropower license to Alcoa, the company needs a certificate from the state Division of Water Quality. Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood says it's the last piece of a puzzle that's taken years to assemble.
"We have worked very carefully with a number of organizations in the state to obtain a relicensing settlement agreement," says Belwood. "We think everything is in position but this one document and as soon as we're able to achieve that we can move forward."
Alcoa actually did get the document last summer - it's called a 401 water quality certificate. But an environmental group called the Yadkin Riverkeeper appealed, and a judge put the certificate on hold. The Riverkeeper's attorney is Ryke Longest of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. "It's time for a do-over on the 401 certification," says Longest. "The 401 certification needs to be sent back to the Division of Water Quality. It needs to follow the process outlined in the North Carolina environmental policy act."
State water quality officials looked primarily at the status of the water as it passed through the dams in issuing the 401 certificate. But one of the reservoirs - High Rock Lake - has serious pollution problems. The Riverkeeper says Alcoa should be forced to fix that first.
Alcoa argues the division of water quality was plenty thorough in issuing the certificate - with one exception. State regulators want Alcoa to post a $240 million bond as a guarantee it will make improvements to the dams. Alcoa says that's three times more money than the work will cost.
Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster will hear arguments Friday morning. Approval of the water quality certificate will clear the way for quick renewal of Alcoa's 50-year license. A number of state and local officials - including Governor Bev Perdue - would like to see Alcoa's license denied completely and the dams placed under state control.