The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

February 6, 2014

The final barrier

By Ray Barham
CNHI

Thursday, February 6, 2014 — When you stand atop the Narrows Dam, you can see for miles in every direction. There’s the Uwharrie National Forest and Morrow Mountain State Park, both remarkable for their pristine, undisturbed beauty. Between them flows the water of the Yadkin River.

That water — and four dams constructed along the river by Alcoa — has been the topic of much debate in Stanly County for more than a decade. Dams, by definition, are a barrier. They capture the water flowing down the river and put it to good use — reservoirs like Badin Lake provide drinking water to local communities, generate clean and renewable energy, create recreational opportunities for people who love to swim, boat and fish, and spur economic development in the surrounding communities.

Alcoa has operated its dams along the Yadkin River for nearly 100 years. But when the company sought a new federal license for its dams, a new set of barriers emerged.

Many people in Stanly County were concerned about the jobs that were eliminated when the Badin plant closed. So shortly after the Badin plant was formally closed in 2010, we immediately began working to redevelop the property. We invested more than $10 million to transform the site into the Badin Business Park, which now ranks among the best industrial sites in North Carolina.

In 2011, Alcoa recruited the nation’s largest electronic waste recycler to Badin. ERI opened a regional recycling center that continues to grow.

Our commitment to jobs helped us reach an agreement with Stanly County last spring. The agreement includes significant investments to support economic development and provides the county with long-term access to clean, affordable water to support the county’s growth. We are now working in partnership with the county to recruit new jobs to the Badin Business Park.

In addition, we continue working to make Stanly County a better place to live. Alcoa awarded scholarships to local high school valedictorians, donated land for a Habitat for Humanity home in West Badin, and donated $20,000 to promote science and technology courses in Stanly County schools.

Only one barrier to a new license remained: obtaining a water quality certificate (known as a 401) from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources that recognized Alcoa’s commitment to meet state water quality standards.

In August, the agency was prepared to issue a 401 certificate for the Yadkin Project.

Our investment in new technology at Badin Lake had resulted in significant water quality improvements. In fact, our annual monitoring now shows that water leaving the Yadkin Project was meeting key water quality standards that will take affect once a new license is issued for the Yadkin Project.

With a proven technology in place and a commitment to spend an additional $80 million to fund further improvements upstream, Alcoa had successfully demonstrated its commitment to water quality.

After months of public hearings and careful evaluation by water quality professionals, DENR was ready to act. It prepared a copy of the 401 certificate and notified us about the impending announcement.

But a new, unexpected barrier emerged. Gov. McCrory claimed the state owned the land under our dams and filed a lawsuit against Alcoa. His administration inserted itself into the regulatory process and insisted that DENR deny our 401 application.

So, once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place: fighting for the right to run the dams we built on the property we own. It’s a clear threat to our property rights – and the rights of anyone who owns property along a waterway in North Carolina.

For Stanly County, the lawsuit has unfortunate consequences. It will further delay benefits such as the expansion of Morrow Mountain State Park, the development of a new waterfront park in Badin, the donation of land for a new water treatment plant, the funding of future economic development initiatives, and a host of other benefits for those who live or play on the lakes.

But our commitment to this community remains steadfast.

We will continue working to improve water quality and protect the beautiful natural resources along the river. We will continue providing time and money to support worthwhile causes in the community. And we will continue paying property taxes on the land we are fighting to protect.

We didn’t pick this legal fight, but we are prepared to defend our property rights in court. No matter how long it takes.

Ray Barham is the Yadkin relicensing manager for Alcoa Power Generating, Inc.