Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist made famous by a movie of the same name, is lending her support to a bill that would create a public trust responsible for managing the Yadkin River and its dams, as the battle for control of the waterway continued Tuesday.
Brockovich was the guest at a luncheon and news conference in Raleigh, where she spoke about the environmental impact of an aluminum smelter plant once operated by Alcoa Inc.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and in my line of work I have just seen repeatedly, unfortunately, the fallout of companies and toxic pollution and the damage that it has caused not only to the environment but occasionally public health and safety," Brockovich said.
Brockovich said companies like Alcoa need to be held accountable for pollution. A study by a Clemson University researcher shows there are environmental problems involving Badin Lake, a 5,300-acre reservoir that empties into the Yadkin.
Brockovich gained international fame after the 2000 release of a movie that portrayed her discovery that a utility company was poisoning the groundwater of a small town. Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brockovich.
The event hosted by Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and city Councilwoman Nancy McFarlane was held to generate support for the bill stalled in the legislature.
The trust would produce and sell electricity, devote some of the power to local economic development projects and clean up remaining pollution. The Senate approved the bill last year, but it failed in the House.
Alcoa has been trying to renew the expired license it has held since 1958 to operate the river's hydroelectric dams, which had formerly been used to power the aluminum plant that is now closed. Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration recommended to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the hydroelectric project should be taken over by the government.
If the energy commission did decide against renewing the license, Congress would have to determine whether a state or municipal body would then take over operating the project.
Some state officials say Alcoa shouldn't be allowed to continue to earn the $44 million a year in electricity sales that the dams generate especially since it closed its plant.
Bill opponents have criticized the state for attempting to take over a private company's property.
Alcoa has been a responsible steward of the river and has spent millions of dollars to improving water quality in the area, said company spokesman Kevin Lowery.
"The operations there began in 1917," Lowery said about environmental regulations. "The rules in 1917 are a lot different than the rules in 2010."
He said that it would set a terrible precedent if the state was given control of the dams after Alcoa had spent the money to build and maintain them for so many years.
"It's just basically not fair," he said.
"This is an issue that goes beyond the borders of Stanley County," said McFarlane in an e-mail. "The citizens of North Carolina are the rightful stewards of the Yadkin River. We have a responsibility to our children and their children to protect our water and our environment."