August 4, 2008

Study Invokes End to Yadkin River Dispute

By Josh McCann, Independent Tribune, Concord, N.C.

Aug. 3--State lawmakers' upcoming study of a private power company's request to continue operating a hydroelectric project on the Yadkin River could end a contentious, high-stakes dispute.

Exactly what that study will entail and how it will be conducted remain somewhat unclear, however.

Even the lawyer who will oversee the study and the senator who sponsored the bill that ordered it aren't sure how legislators will proceed once they wade into a tug-of-war for rights to the river between Alcoa Power Generating Inc. and a group led by Stanly County Commissioners.

George Givens is counsel for the Environmental Review Commission, a bipartisan group of legislators from across the state who will examine the clash.

Givens pledged to bring both sides together for open, mediated discussions.

"They wanted me to take it on, but they need to tell me how to do it," Givens said of the opposing factions.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Cabarrus County, is the bill's sponsor.

He said it is largely up to the commission's legislators to determine what happens next.

"They may have different interpretations," Hartsell said of the company and its opponents. "The real interpretation is what the ERC thinks it is."

This much is clear: Hartsell's bill, which Gov. Mike Easley signed into law this week, directs the commission to evaluate how APGI's pending application to federal regulators would affect the state.

APGI, a subsidiary of aluminum producer Alcoa, wants a 50-year renewal of its license to generate power and more than $8 million in annual profits from four dams and reservoirs along a 38-mile stretch of the river.

Stanly County leaders have opposed Alcoa's application, arguing the company no longer operates in the public interest and should not be allowed to profit so substantially from a public natural resource. Cabarrus is among six counties that have joined Stanly in opposition.

Some of the company's opponents have advocated for government officials to consider taking over the project to create a public power authority under the 1920 federal law that governs the relicensing process.

Many observers, including several state leaders, want North Carolina to ensure it has more control over the future of the river before federal regulators rule on Alcoa's application for a new long-term license.

Both sides support the latest study bill, which is the result of a compromise reached in the final week of the recently adjourned legislative session. It empowers the commission to study the potential implications of a renewed Alcoa license by considering:

--the socioeconomic impacts of Alcoa's decision to close a smelting plant that used low-cost power from the Yadkin and once provided about 1,000 jobs in the Stanly County town of Badin,

--the assurance of an adequate, clean future water supply for the region and

--the allocation of water from the project for non-power uses.

The commission is to deliver a report, including its findings and any recommendations or legislative proposals, to the General Assembly by Feb. 1.

Beyond those relatively broad instructions, the latest bill does not specify the precise scope of the study nor how the commission is to arrive at any conclusions.

Even before the bill hit Easley's desk, Alcoa representatives and the company's opponents quarreled about its significance. Most notably, they disagreed over whether the new language allows for consideration of government takeover.

Although Givens said he has no preconceived notion of what direction the commission's inquiry will take, he said legislators should be free to look at any subject they deem relevant or useful.

Givens plans to use the commission's mandate to study the subject as an opportunity to conduct relatively informal, arbitrated negotiations.

"I think I'm going to ask the parties to submit some sort of outline of their position and how they hope this matter will be resolved and why they think it will be that way," Givens said. "My goal is not to produce a report so much as it is to reach a resolution."

After traveling to the region to see the project for himself, Givens plans to return to Raleigh and begin what is known among legislative insiders as a "605" process.

That process, named after the meeting room in which it sometimes takes place, has previously helped to resolve debates over other controversial topics, such as drought management, coastal stormwater management and solid waste management, Givens said.

Givens was also involved in the interbasin transfer request for the Cabarrus cities of Concord and Kannapolis that drew considerable opposition last year, Hartsell said.

In this case, Givens intends to include all interested parties in a working group that will likely begin meeting around Labor Day.

Through both scheduled meetings and improvised conversations, Givens hopes Alcoa and its opponents can reach an agreement or at least narrow the focus of their debate.

"We try to achieve consensus," Givens said. "I can nudge folks in what seems to be the fair, reasonable and logical direction."

If such an agreement is reached, Givens may then hold a public hearing to solicit feedback from the region's residents.

Finding satisfactory common ground could allow the two sides to cease hostilities before the matter gets to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a five-member body in Washington that oversees the Yadkin project and about 1,600 others.

Avoiding further conflict would be a significant achievement considering both sides have already invested substantial money and effort for more than five years only to arrive at their current stalemate.

If anyone can amicably settle an argument at such an impasse, Givens and his staff will likely find a way to do so, Hartsell said.

"He has been really involved in the drafting of most of the environmental legislation that exists in the state for the last 20 years," Hartsell said. "The membership of the ERC depends heavily on his ability to address these differing issues in a responsible way."

What will lawmakers study?

A bill signed by Gov. Mike Easley this week instructs the General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission to study the implications of Alcoa Power Generating Inc.'s application for a 50-year renewal of its federal license to operate the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project.

The bill empowers the bipartisan commission of lawmakers from across the state to consider and develop proposals by Feb. 1 regarding:

--the socioeconomic impacts of Alcoa's decision to close a smelting plant that used low-cost power from the Yadkin and once provided about 1,000 jobs in the Stanly County town of Badin,

--the assurance of an adequate, clean future water supply for the region and

--the allocation of water from the project for non-power uses.


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