Alcoa takes another tack: Cold, hard cash

It’s good to be a giant, multi-national corporation these days. Loopholes in the tax code combined with offshore holdings make many big US corporations virtually immune to tax burden, resulting in a lot of cash on hand. A recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to inject unlimited amounts of money into our political process ensures that the big boys will always get favorable treatment from those who are supposed to protect the interests of the people. And they use this cash in other ways too.

Alcoa, the world’s largest maker of aluminum, has been using the Yadkin River, which runs along the western border of Forsyth County, since 1917 through a special contract with the state. In 1958, it secured a 50-year lease to use the river for hydroelectric power to run its smelting operation. The contract expired in 2008, and Alcoa is having trouble renewing it, largely because the river and its inhabitants have been found to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl, a toxic byproduct of the aluminum smelting process also known as PCB.

With a renewed contract, Alcoa stands to make billions off of the river, and the only thing standing in its way is the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources which revoked a 401 water quality certification the aluminum maker needs to satisfy its custodianship of the people’s river, largely because the company withheld crucial information from the agency about contamination downstream.

Alcoa has tried to go around the state agencies and Gov. Bev Perdue in its pursuit of the lease in a series of failed legal maneuvers, and now it’s trying another tack: cold, hard cash.

If the state regulatory hurdles disappear, Alcoa Vice President Kevin Anton told the Associated Press earlier this month that the company would commit to creating about 750 jobs with a payroll totaling $30 million a year. And if the jobs don’t materialize, the company offered a clawback provision of $50 million, to be paid out to Stanly County over the life of the 50-year lease.

Now, $50 million sounds like a lot of money, even at $1 million a year.

But it’s not.

Alcoa made $18.7 million last year from its Yadkin River operation alone, selling the electricity to other commercial interests; in 2006, before the recession, it made $44 million from selling electricity generated by the river. This company could find $1 million a year in its couch cushions.

And it’s a small price to pay for poisoning people’s drinking water. For now the state is holding strong, resisting the offer of jobs, and the $50 million payoff, saying it will base its water quality determination on — surprise! — the quality of the water. That we applaud a government agency doing the job it was created to do is surely a sign of our times.

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