Public v. Private: Power Struggle on the Yadkin 1

May 13, 2009

Badin Mayor Jim Harrison stands on the steps of town hall. Alcoa's old smelter looms behind.
Credit Julie Rose / WFAE

Drought has forced North Carolina to take a closer look at its dependence on rivers for drinking water and economic development. The focus centers right now on the tiny town of Badin about an hour northeast of Charlotte on the Yadkin River. Over the next three days, WFAE will feature a series of stories about the river and Alcoa's fight to keep control. In Part One of "Public versus Private: Power Struggle on the Yadkin," Julie Rose tells the story of Badin: 

The first thing to welcome you as you drive into the tiny town of Badin, North Carolina, is Alcoa, the aluminum company, which used to operate a smelter here until 2002. The smelter is gray and quiet and looms over town hall, where I'm standing right now.

"Alcoa is Badin," says Mayor Jim Harrison, standing on the sidewalk in front of his office. "Alcoa built Badin, along with the French. That was our only industry and we've lost our heart when we lost Alcoa."

From the steps of town hall, we can see the little European-style homes built by French settlers who set up the aluminum operation in 1913. Before they finished damming the Yadkin River, World War I broke out and they went home to fight for France. That's when Alcoa bought the project and finished the dam and smelter.

Mayor Harrison says Badin was a proud company town. He worked there 30 years. "My father worked there until he died, 26 years. My father in law had 44 1/2 years. So we bleed Alcoa blue, yes," says Harrison.

At its peak, Alcoa's 900 workers were more than half the population of Badin. The smelter closed in 2002, and since then Alcoa's been selling the electricity from those dams for a profit. The company has applied to renew that license for another 50 years.

Mayor Harrison is happy with the way Alcoa runs the dams - as opposed to a proposal that would let the state take over. "I would rather trust who I know than who I don't know," says Harrison. "Does the state not run our highways? Do you really think they have done the best with our highways that can be done? So, I mean, if they do the same job with our dams, what's that gonna end up being."

Harrison also likes how Alcoa manages its four reservoirs on the Yadkin. The company offers free fishing and swimming areas and has protected much of the shoreline from development. Harrison and other locals credit Alcoa with the quality of their small town life. "I'm not all for grow, grow, grow," says Harrison. "If you want to see growth, why don't you move to Lake Norman and just let it grow up around your ears, because that used to be a pristine, beautiful place."

"The jobs are gone," says Andy Lucas, manager of Stanly County, which includes Badin. "The manufacturing is gone. The reason for them to generate that electricity and use the public's water - is gone. And so what's left? What's left for us?"

Lucas, along with the governor and several other counties downriver, is pushing for the state to take control of Alcoa's hydropower license and dams. To get a license on the river, a private company must offer substantial benefit to the public. Alcoa employs about 30 people at the dams, pays half a million dollars in taxes each year and has agreed to additional recreational opportunities on the lakes. But that's not enough to satisfy Stanly County or Governor Perdue. Nor is it enough for Roger Dick, a member of the NC Water Rights Committee.

"The state needs to be in control," says Dick. "It's the state that needs to be talking to the federal government about how this water is to be used going forward. We do not need to be as citizens having to go ask a global company for how we will use our water."

Dick is a banker who grew up in Badin. He believes Stanly County, and his own business, would benefit if the state controlled Alcoa's dams and could use them to recruit new businesses to the region. But spend an afternoon on the streets of Badin and you'll find a town full of Alcoa fans. You'll also find the dams on the river are not their main concern. It's the vacant smelter.

Here's Emily Wilson - the lone teller on duty in the town's one credit union where Alcoa workers used to cash their pay checks. "I would like to see Alcoa bring back some jobs," says Wilson. "The economy being as bad as it is and we have an empty plant that should be running. It's sad. It's tough on everybody right now."

Alcoa says it's unlikely the smelter will ever reopen, no matter what happens with the hydropower license. That leaves Badin a company town without a company.

Our three-part series "Public v. Private: Power Struggle on the Yadkin" continues tomorrow on Morning Edition at 6:30 and 8:30 with a report on the complex arguments surrounding Alcoa's pending license.