Political heavyweights from Davidson and Cabarrus counties, Raleigh line up against Alcoa

by Keith Barber

Faison Hicks (right), a special deputy attorney general for the NC Department of Justice, speaks to audience members as Davidson County Commissioner Cathy Dunn listens during a public meeting on the Alcoa controversy on July 29. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

A public meeting held at the lakefront home of Davidson County Commissioner Cathy Dunn on July 29 revealed some divisions among the residents that live along the shores of High Rock Lake over the issue of Alcoa’s efforts to obtain another 50 years of control of a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that includes the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project.

But the majority of the approximately 150 residents in attendance voiced unequivocal support for the Yadkin River Alliance — a coalition of citizens, environmentalists and elected officials that are petitioning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to allow the state to “recapture” the water rights to the Yadkin River.

Dunn said the association’s actions spurred her to investigate Alcoa’s claims of being a good environmental steward.

“As a result of many hours of research and traveling to Raleigh, talking to officials, getting a lot of facts, I began to see that Alcoa was really not the good citizen they appeared to be,” Dunn said. “Yes, they did build the dams, they did provide jobs, but all that is gone now and has been for many years.”

Dunn, a member of the High Rock Lake Association, said she grew concerned when the group made a major shift from opposing Alcoa’s efforts to renew its 50-year license with FERC to supporting the aluminum giant and signing off on a relicensing settlement agreement with the aluminum maker.

Alcoa’s Badin Works aluminum smelting operation closed in 2007.

“The facts have all the components of a blockbuster movie — deceit, lies, misinformation, contamination, PCB pollution and poisoned fish,” Dunn continued. “The water they use and sell is making millions in dollars in profit for them with no benefit coming back to the people of North Carolina.”

As sign-up sheets for the Yadkin River Alliance made their way through the crowd, Dunn emphasized the importance of the issue facing all the residents of the Yadkin River Basin.

“I feel that it is not only the right thing to do to recapture our water and have the license issued back to the people in the state, it’s the only thing to do to protect this most precious resource for us and our future generations,” Dunn said. “There are times when one must take a stand even when the only reward is being on the right side of history.”

Max Walser, chairman of the Davidson County Commission, served as the commission’s liaison in the re-licensing negotiations.

Walser said the commission refused to sign on to the relicensing settlement agreement due to concerns about Alcoa’s environmental stewardship of the Yadkin. Walser said he has traveled to Washington DC on four occasions to meet with the state’s Congressional delegation and to plead with FERC officials to deny Alcoa’s bid for another 50 years of control over the Yadkin.

Chuck Melton resigned from the High Rock Lake Association’s board of directors in May because of his concerns about the group’s allegiance to Alcoa.

“I was told that we were legally bound to defend Alcoa,” Melton said. “I was surprised at that. I came to believe that Alcoa was more important to that organization than its many members. I could no longer support the campaign of misinformation from Alcoa and unfortunately, from the lake association as well.”

Penney Book, an association board member, defended the group’s actions. After five years of re-licensing negotiations, Book said the group reached what they believed to be a reasonable solution to many of the issues they had with the aluminum giant regarding water levels and other environmental concerns. Book said he and other association members felt comfortable with allowing Alcoa maintain control over the water rights to the Yadkin, and expressed confidence that Alcoa will prevail in the re-licensing process.

However, nearly all of the speakers at the public forum disagreed with Book’s position. Melton referred to a letter composed by Faison Hicks, the special deputy attorney general for the NC Department of Justice, in which he claims that a statement made by an Alcoa official in response to a question from NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell during a July 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary II committee was “not factual.”

When Hartsell asked Bill O’Rourke, Alcoa’s head of environmental health and safety, if the company had any epidemiological documents showing a high incidence of kidney and/or bladder cancer in the employees at the Badin Works compared to the population as a whole, O’Rourke denied such a study existed. However, Hicks pointed out a 1996 internal Alcoa document sent to O’Rourke regarding the results of an epidemiological study that concluded Alcoa workers have an elevated risk of developing kidney cancer —3.7 times greater than the population as a whole.

A cancer survivor, Melton called on Alcoa to “stop the lies,” and encouraged those in attendance to join the Yadkin River Alliance.

Hartsell credited Roger Dick, a community activist, and Lindsey Dunevant, a Stanly County commissioner, with bringing the Alcoa issue to his attention. Hartsell said the answer to the current controversy could be found in the US Constitution and the NC Constitution.

“We, the people, own that river, period,” Hartsell said.

Hartsell said the Uwharrie Resources Commission, which the NC General Assembly established last month, creates a vehicle for the state to recapture the water rights to the Yadkin and invest the proceeds from the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project back into the community.

NC Sen. Stan Bingham said Alcoa reaps $186 million annually from power generated by the four dams along the Yadkin and the people of the Yadkin River Basin see very little if any benefit from the exploitation of their most important natural resource. Bingham said he supports the Yadkin River Alliance and commended UNC-TV senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda for her work on the documentary, The Alcoa Story, which explored the connection between the arsenic, cyanide and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB contamination of Badin Lake and Alcoa’s aluminum smelting operation at its Badin Works facility.

Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, lambasted Alcoa for the company’s deplorable record of environmental stewardship globally. Naujoks said the facts about Alcoa’s environmental contamination at its various sites around the globe should inspire citizens to stand up to the aluminum giant and demand they clean up their contamination of the Yadkin River. Naujoks introduced Helen Hammonds, whose husband, Houston, died from a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma caused by PCB’s that a scientific study linked to Alcoa’s Badin Works facility. Naujoks said Hammonds’ story is just one of hundreds, and Alcoa’s actions make it clear the company does not appreciate human life.

“Alcoa is an accomplice to these deaths,” Naujoks said.

NC Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco said the effective stewardship of the Yadkin River is the key to the area’s economic future.

“There is no greater economic development project that I know than the water flow of the Yadkin River,” Crisco said.

Crisco addressed claims by Alcoa and the High Rock Lake Association that the state’s efforts to recapture the water rights amounted to a government takeover of private property.

“It’s not an asset grab,” Crisco said. “It is the furthest thing from a government takeover. It’s about preserving the best interests of all North Carolinians.

“Think about what we could do with 50 years of low-priced power,” he added. “I want to bring jobs to North Carolina. That revenue stream belongs to the people of North Carolina.”