Ka-chunk, ka-chunk … Ka-chunk, ka-chunk….
For over a century the sound of wheels on wood have greeted residents of and visitors to the Lake Junaluska Assembly alike as cars, trucks, people and pets cross the bridge over the Lake Junaluska Dam.
Nearly a century old, the aging Cullowhee Dam is at a crossroads — with risk of failure increasing, Western Carolina University must decide whether to renovate the existing structure or remove it completely.
The dam hasn’t been used for power generation since the 1960s, but it creates a reservoir of still water that supplies WCU and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. However, some would like to see the dam disappear, offering increased opportunity for paddlers and allowing fish and other aquatic life to travel freely through a more natural, higher-quality river.
Sylva will have to spend $25,000 on an emergency action plan for Fisher Creek Dam, due to a 2016 state law requiring dams designated as high-hazard to have such a plan in place.
Lake Sequoyah in Highlands is currently being drained in preparation for completing about $3 million in repairs to the dam.
Lake Sequoyah will disappear for a few months in the coming year as Highlands plans to drain the reservoir to complete a pair of projects there. Combining $1.6 million in grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency with another $950,000 of town funds, Highlands plans to install a new intake valve in a deep part of the lake and complete some much-needed maintenance on the dam itself.
New protocols for the unlikely event that one of Duke Energy’s dams shows a sign of weakness could speed evacuation of residents downstream.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants power companies such as Duke Energy to cut the amount of time between workers suspecting a problem with a dam and the evacuation of anyone who might be at risk, a job carried out by local emergency responders.
An analysis completed this past year indicates “we’re in pretty good shape” on detecting dam-integrity issues, said Brad Keaton, chief dam safety engineer for Charlotte-based Duke Energy, during an annual meeting of regional emergency response workers and Duke employees. Sixty-five attended last week’s meeting, held at Western Carolina University.
Verification of a problem is where Duke can shave some additional time off, Keaton said.
An on-call technician will be dispatched, as always, to evaluate the situation firsthand. Duke is adding technology — in this case, on-site cameras — so that a dam failure can be declared more quickly.
Anyone working on the dams for the company is empowered to make the call without going through the chain of command, no matter how low on the corporate ladder their job might be, the engineer said. This is not the case with most agencies, including Fontana Dam in Swain and Graham counties, a federal Tennessee Valley Authority project.
“In the very unlikely event of a dam failure our responsibility in hydro (as in hydroelectric dams) is for the safety of downstream residents,” said Carol S. Goolsby, vice president of Duke’s hydro and renewables generation. “We were questioned (by federal authorities) about whether this responsibility is really and truly at the lowest level of workers in the company … they are well-trained, they’re very experienced, they live here, and they know the structures.”
These workers, Goolsby added, recognize any changes occurring to a dam because “they know what they are used to seeing.”
Keaton said Duke Energy recognizes there is a certain risk involved in empowering its employees — an unnecessary evacuation is unlikely to be easily overlooked in a community — but “this is a risk we are willing to take.”
Additionally, Keaton told those at the meeting that a siren will be added to at least one Western North Carolina dam: the dam on Nantahala Lake at the confluence of Queens Creek and the Nantahala River in northwestern Macon County. A cluster of houses lies directly below the remote location, and a siren would warn the residents there more quickly if there were any danger.
Duke Energy has 12 dams in the Nantahala Area, the 1,729-square-mile part of Western North Carolina once served by Nantahala Power and Light. Nantahala Power and Light never experienced a dam failure; Duke Energy also has not had a dam failure since its beginnings in 1904 as a hydroelectric generating company, according to Fred Alexander, district manager for Duke.
The company and area emergency managers meet every year, he said, to ensure coordination and to know one another personally.
Swain County has lost more than $17,000 a month from their coffers, and that financial gouge may become a lot bigger following a suit filed by Graham County last month.
Graham and Swain county are at odds over property taxes collected from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Dam and its hydropower equipment and generators. For 67 years — since the dam was built — the two counties split the revenue equally.
But Graham argued it deserves more, since more of the dam and generators are on its side of the county line. Graham succeeded in convincing the N.C. Attorney General’s Office of their position last fall, resulting in a new formula for divvying the TVA proceeds. The result: Swain gets $17,700 less a month, which is now going to Graham instead.
The October ruling stated that, according to the original channel of the Little Tennessee River, which has long been the boundary between the two counties, more of the dam and its taxable equipment belongs in Graham. And the Attorney General agreed that, if this was the case, they should get more of the money, as well.
Upon hearing this, Graham County commissioners decided not to rest on their laurels content with their newfound cash flow. They marched right up to the Graham County Superior Court and filed suit against their neighbor for 67 years of back tax revenue that Swain County gained on the erroneous measuring formula.
The suit doesn’t put a number on how much they want back, but Graham officials have pegged it at $15 million, according to an article published in the Graham Star last month. Graham named the Department of Revenue as a co-defendant to ensure they provided a formula and a number for how much Graham would be owed.
Raleigh mayor and tax attorney Charles Meeker is leading the charge as Graham County’s attorney, and he said that discussions about a possible filing started to be bandied about following the Attorney General’s October ruling.
He said the county is simply trying to recoup what was always rightfully theirs, but has long been distributed inequitably.
“Because of incorrect information from the TVA, the Department of Revenue had not distributed those payments correctly for years,” said Meeker. “We don’t know the exact amount, but the lawsuit requests the Department of Revenue to make that calculation.”
Swain County has yet to respond to the suit, but has requested a 30-day extension to file their response.
Swain County Manager Kevin King told the Graham Star last month that his county would be looking into a countersuit, seeking damages for the 51,000 acres of land lost to the Fontana Dam’s impounding in 1943. King maintained that they were never fairly compensated, especially stacked up against the mere 4,000 acres lost by Graham County. He said the county is planning a robust battle against the suit. They are due to respond in mid-February.
Technically, the TVA payments to the two counties are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, since government entities are not required to pay property taxes. But like property taxes, the payments by TVA are based on the value of the hydropower operation determined by the N.C. Department of Revenue and the tax rate set by the county.
Duke Energy has fired back at Jackson County’s attempt to seize the Dillsboro Dam with a counterclaim of its own.
Duke claims that it is the victim of abuse of process by the county and is seeking damages.
Despite the county’s claims that it wants the dam and adjacent river shore to create a park, Duke alleges that Jackson has an “ulterior purpose.” Jackson County has long been an opponent of dam removal, fighting tooth and nail to save the dam before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Seizing the dam through eminent domain was seen as a trump card and last resort held by the county.
Duke argues the condemnation move is “solely for the purpose of interfering with and circumventing” dam demolition, not a true desire to create a park. Duke claims the county has “willfully misused” its condemnation powers.
Duke further took issue with the miserly sum of $1 Jackson County has offered to pay for the property it hopes to seize. The county would be required to compensate Duke for the monetary value of the dam and shoreline property if condemnation is successful. The county argues that $1 is sufficient, since Duke would be saved the trouble and expense of tearing it down, an undertaking that would have cost more than $1 million. That savings should more than suffice as the monetary compensation Jackson would otherwise owe Duke, the suit argues.
Duke said the snub is “further evidence of the county’s bad faith and improper purpose for bringing this action.”
Duke’s counterclaim filed last week seeks an unspecified sum covering attorneys’ fees and monetary damages.
Jackson County’s lawsuit against Duke Energy to seize the Dillsboro Dam and surrounding river shore through eminent domain has been kicked up to federal court.
Jackson County filed the condemnation lawsuit in state court in August, but Duke attorneys argued that federal law is in play and therefore the case belongs in federal court. While state law allows for the condemnation of land by a county to create parks and recreation facilities, Duke claims that the Federal Power Law governing utilities preempts state statutes.
The case could ultimately come down to the interpretation of both state and federal laws.
Meanwhile, the county was seeking a restraining order against Duke to keep the utility from demolishing, altering or removing any part of the dam or nearby powerhouse while waiting for the condemnation suit to be heard. Jackson County wants to transform the dam and surrounding shoreline of the Tuckasegee into a river park and promenade, replete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. The dam and powerhouse are intended as focal points and therefore must be protected through a preliminary injunction, Jackson pleaded.
But Duke says it does not plan to start demolishing the dam until January 2010.
For that reason, Jackson County’s request for a restraining order to stave of demolition is unnecessary for the time being, Judge Martin Reidinger ruled.
Jackson County can “refile such motions for a temporary restraining order as may be necessary,” Reidinger wrote in his ruling.
A decrepit dam is being torn down along the North Toe River near Spruce Pine this week, clearing the way for a restoration of natural aquatic habitat.
The dam demolition removes a barrier to river migration of aquatic species, obstructions have led to a decline in some species, including rare and endangered ones.
“The North Toe is a wonderful river and taking this useless dam out makes it better,” remarked Cliff Vinson, the coordinator for the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council, which is organizing the effort.
The cost of removal is $202,500 provided by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Division of Water Resources.
The dam was constructed for power generation in 1918, providing electricity to the town of Spruce Pine and a local factory. It was abandoned by the late 1940s or early 1950s, then partially dynamited in 1960 to clear silt which had accumulated upstream. What remains are massive slabs of concrete and scattered pieces of the dam’s metal inner workings.
“It’s not very often a dam comes out of a river,” remarked Anita Goetz, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The dam removal will also make the river safer for paddlers. The partially crumbled dam creates a powerful hydraulic that claimed a boater’s life in 1983. Boaters that portage around the structure have to skirt an active railroad along the shore.