Duke just hasn’t offered much to the region

The phrase “do the right thing,” the name of an early Spike Lee movie, has become a part of the lexicon of this generation. It’s a phrase that has often come to mind — as in, “we wish they would do the right thing ” — as we’ve watched Duke Energy throughout the negotiations to relicense its hydropower operations in the region.

As the relicensing process draws to close and some kind of agreement is imminent, we are reminded of the phrase again. In this case, we were hoping Duke would go above and beyond what is required when it comes to removing the sediment from behind the Dillsboro dam. Apparently, the company doesn’t plan to do even what it has been told to do. Instead, Duke has asked the federal government to allow it to just dredge the sediment it can sell.

Since the early 1960s, the government has mandated that Duke and all utilities compensate communities for using public waterways for hydropower. The compensation comes due when utilities relicense their dams. Each situation is different, and so each agreement depends on a whole host of factors.

The primary component of Duke’s compensation package is the removal of the Dillsboro dam, which is supported by the whitewater industry, anglers, and many regulatory agencies. It will open up the Tuckasegee River for a longer uninterrupted flow. Many, however, feel removing the dam and donating some of the land around it to the town of Dillsboro is a very small and benign effort. That — along with some whitewater releases, some river put-ins, and $200,000 over 30 years — are the major components of Duke’s compensation package for the operation of 10 other hydroplants in Western North Carolina.

It’s easy to look at big utility companies and consider how small communities could use the relicensing process as an opportunity to gore the cash cow. But we don’t think those asking for a better compensation package from Duke fall into this category. Those who aren’t satisfied with the agreement include Jackson and Macon counties and the towns of Franklin and Webster, along with many members of the general public. Many believe citizens in the Western North Carolina counties covered by this relicensing are not being treated as well as others who have forged relicensing agreements with large utilities.

In Haywood County, Progress Energy created the Pigeon River Fund when it sought the license renewal for its Waterville power plant in the late 1990s. The company was required to make an initial contribution of $1 million and annual payments of around $250,000. The fund has provided more than $2.3 million in grants for environmental and education projects in the French Broad River Basin (into which the Pigeon River flows) since 1996. In addition, the company began making scheduled releases into the Pigeon River that created a whitewater industry in Hartford, Tenn.

When ALCOA sought a 40-year license for its four hydroelectric facilities — Chilhowee and Calderwood dams in Blount County, Tenn., and Cheoah and Santeetlah dams in North Carolina — the mitigation package was supported by nearly everyone involved when it was signed in 2005. ALCOA agreed to put nearly 6,000 acres into a permanent conservation easement and another 4,000 acres in a term-conservation easement (which may or may not be renewed after the 40-year license). In addition, ALCOA will contribute $125,000 annually to a fund which will help protect the water resources in that area. It also agreed to regular water releases into the Cheoah.

In both cases, the agreements were not divisive — like the one currently proposed by Duke — but brought many normally antagonistic groups together. Duke could have offered to work with Jackson County and turn the Dillsboro dam into a green energy showcase, a move that would have worked in concert with the county’s Green Energy Park. It could have helped develop a signature greenway along the Tuckasegee from WCU to Dillsboro, or along Scotts Creek in Sylva. Some kind of high-profile project with broad community support is what many were looking for in this relicensing proposal, but it just never happened.

We hope that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other regulatory groups will look closely at the proposal and what it offers to citizens of the region. We think Duke should do more. And, if not, then at least require the removal of sediment from behind the dam before it is torn down. Sediment is killing our rivers and creeks, and adding the tons of sediment that sit behind the dam to an already burdened river system is just a bad idea.

On the other hand, all would have been easier if Duke would, as the saying goes, do the right thing. Apparently that’s not going to happen.

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