Erin Brockovich lends celebrity profile to Alcoa controversy

by Keith Barber

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich poses with Stanly County Commissioner Lindsey Dunevant during an appearance at Wake Forest University last week. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist whose real-life story of standing up to a corporate giant was depicted in the 2000 Academy Award-winning film, Erin Brockovich, pledged her solidarity to a coalition of citizens, politicians and environmentalists opposed to Alcoa’s efforts to seize another 50 years of control over a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River during an appearance at Wake Forest University on June 29.

Earlier in the day, Brockovich met with state legislators in Raleigh to advocate for the passage of House Bill 1455, which would create the Yadkin River Trust. The bill would develop the Yadkin River in Stanly, Davidson, Montgomery and Rowan counties for sale and distribution of hydroelectric power, and ensure the equitable distribution of water for public purposes provided the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepts the state’s bid to “recapture” the 38-mile span of river from Alcoa. The bill has stalled in the House committee on water resources and infrastructure.

“You have an opportunity for some very unique legislation here regarding the dams and that money being put back into a trust that your state can benefit from and those funds will be put back into the community to help clean up the water, to put people to work, to creating green jobs,” Brockovich said. “If we can initiate more laws like that, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

The bill would require environmental testing of all sites formerly owned by Alcoa, including its Badin Works aluminum smelting facility, and establish a remediation fund for cleaning up contamination at those sites.

The NC Senate passed its version of the Yadkin River Trust bill (SB 967) last year, but it was defeated in the House. On July 1, the language of the bill was included in an economic incentives package, said Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth). If approved by the Senate, the bill could make its way to the House for a vote some time this week.

In addition, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) subpoenaed a documentary produced by UNC-TV about the Alcoa controversy and scheduled a screening of the film for state legislators and the public on Tuesday morning.

Folwell said he voted against the bill during last year’s session, and would oppose the bill if it comes before the House this week.

Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) also voted against the Yadkin River Trust bill last year, but said he’s now leaning toward supporting the bill. Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin riverkeeper, said Womble is part of a growing number of elected officials who are rallying behind the Yadkin River Coalition.

“We have our governor, our secretary of commerce — we have many of our lawmakers that do not support Alcoa.and then this contamination issue, this public health threat that Alcoa refuses to address, they completely ignore, and then they act like they’re good global stewards,” Naujoks said.

Last September, Gov. Beverly Perdue officially came on board with the Yadkin River Coalition, filing papers with the FERC seeking the recapture of water rights to the Yadkin.

“Given the Yadkin River’s broad impact on the state, we believe strongly that the state is the most appropriate body to plan use of this invaluable natural resource, to help assure the region’s municipal water supply and quality and to facilitate future growth and development,” Perdue said in a formal statement.

Naujoks said the flurry of activity surrounding opposition to Alcoa’s re-licensing effort is encouraging, but the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The current legislative session is scheduled to end on Friday but the bill is quickly gaining momentum due to the fact that many legislators are beginning to realize that Alcoa’s property rights argument is flawed, Naujoks said.

“Alcoa did a good job of trying to kill that legislation last year, but I think their short-term gain is going to come back haunt them in terms of misleading lawmakers and understanding that there’s a larger environmental issue here,” Naujoks said. “We believe there are more and more lawmakers that are recognizing that they’ve been misled, misinformed by Alcoa, and we’re just starting to see more lawmakers start to show a considerable amount of support.”

The environmental issue at the heart of the Yadkin River Coalition’s opposition is the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, in Badin Lake and surrounding waterways.

An environmental study commissioned by Stanly County and conducted by professor John Rodgers of Clemson University last year established a connection between contamination found in fish and soil samples taken from Badin Lake and Alcoa’s Badin Works aluminum smelting facility, which closed in 2007.

Rodgers’ findings led the Yadkin River Coalition to appeal the water quality certification issued by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR. Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster granted an injunction 14 months ago prohibiting the state agency from issuing a 401 Water Quality Certification to Alcoa until the full appeal is heard.

The state issued a fish consumption advisory for Badin Lake between Stanly and Montgomery counties last year due to elevated levels of PCBs found in large mouth bass and catfish. Alcoa attempted to block the advisory by filing a legal appeal.

Kevin Lowery, a spokesman for Alcoa, disputed the results of Rodgers’ environmental study. Alcoa has maintained that PCB contamination in Badin Lake can be attributed to sources upstream rather than the company’s Badin Works facility. Lowery asserted that the state’s efforts to recapture the water rights to the 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin that encompass Alcoa’s four hydroelectric dams is simply a property rights issue.

“At the end of the day, that bill is nothing more than a conduit to take private property from a private company,” Lowery said. “Unfortunately, the effort is misguided. It comes down to seizure of private property, which would cost the taxpayers of North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars.”

If the FERC allows the state to recapture the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, the state will have to pay Alcoa fair market value for its facilities, Lowery said. In addition, Alcoa has spent tens of millions of dollars to mitigate any environmental impact of its operations in Stanly County. The FERC relicensing agreement mandates Alcoa invest $240 million in equipment upgrades to help improve water quality at its four hydroelectric dams, which the company is committed to doing, Lowery added.

If the Yadkin River Coalition and its allies are ultimately successful in the General Assembly, the FERC still must approve the recapture of the Yadkin by the state. The federal agency has never denied a FERC permit and exercised recapture provisions on behalf of the public interest in its history.

Brockovich said it’s essential to the environment, public health and that state’s economy that North Carolina make history in its fight to regain its water rights to the Yadkin River. She is currently working with residents in a community outside Perth, Australia who have filed an environmental contamination lawsuit against Alcoa.

“It frustrates me that Alcoa is clearly in a position to be accountable for the messes they have made, and come clean them up, and do what they have to do to help that community,” Brockovich said. “They would rather fight it than just admit it that we’ve got a contamination problem and jeopardize public health and safety. We need to do something about it.

“There has been, in my opinion, a lost moral and ethical and value system within certain corporations,” Brockovich continued. “Alcoa has not exhibited good environmental stewardship…. I think they’ve got a long way to go, but I think they’ve got a good opportunity here.”