AP News

Alcoa takes new tack in fight for NC dams permit

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Alcoa Inc. said Tuesday that it was taking a new tack in its battle with those who oppose its proposal to turn clean power into billions of dollars in revenues.

The Pittsburgh-based company said it wants to sideline a pending administrative fight over a revoked state water-quality certification and submit a new request. Failing to get the key regulatory approval has blocked Alcoa from getting federal approval to operate four Yadkin River dams for up to 50 more years.

The state Division of Water Quality initially approved Alcoa's plans in 2009 on condition that the company make a $240 million guarantee it will follow through on promises to upgrade the dams and improve the condition of the flowing water. The state agency's decision was challenged in a state administrative law court, which led to the disclosure of internal company emails in which Alcoa officials expressed concern that downstream waters may not meet state standards.

DWQ regulators revoked its approval in 2010, claiming that Alcoa intentionally withheld information.

Alcoa isn't abandoning its appeal of that revocation, but wants to postpone action and file a new permit request that doesn't hash out whether the company withheld concerns over dissolved oxygen levels. The Yadkin dams did not meet water standards for water that is drawn from deep below with low dissolved oxygen levels and discharged into the river. Water quality has since improved thanks to $5 million in dam improvements, Alcoa vice president Kevin Anton said.

"The way we're looking at is we don't need to have at that debate. Let's just start this fresh," Anton said. "The idea is we want to go with the new one, but we don't want anybody to ever think that we're not fully committed to the old one and there was anything wrong with the old one."

It's not clear if regulators or the state administrative judge hearing the dispute will accept Alcoa's move. DWQ officials did not respond to questions posed in telephone calls and emails, citing ongoing litigation.

Alcoa's Yadkin River dams for decades supplied electricity to an aluminum-smelting plant that once employed hundreds in central North Carolina but is now shuttered.

Alcoa now sells the electricity dams to commercial customers. The company estimated in 2006 that the dams generated almost $44 million a year in revenues. Over 50 years, that could mean more than $2 billion, an amount that could multiply if demand for clean power booms.

The company's bid to keep operating the dams is opposed by environmental groups, Stanly County commissioners and Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration. Perdue and other politicians say they hope to encourage local job growth by attracting new industries with dam-generated electricity and by having greater freedom to draw river water.

Opponents said Alcoa's move indicated the company didn't want a hearing on whether it withheld information to regulators.

"It seems like they only offer to do something when they get their hands caught in the cookie jar," Stanly County Commission Chairman Lindsey Dunevant said.


Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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