News: CJ Exclusives

At Raleigh Event, Brockovich Vague On Alcoa Dam Controversy

Celebrity activist unfamiliar with licensing issues, refuses to “get into eminent domain”

At a press conference Tuesday, environmental activist and celebrity Erin Brockovich offered a rambling defense of the state’s efforts to take control of four central North Carolina hydroelectric dams between Salisbury and Badin owned and operated by Alcoa Power Generating Inc.

“My job here today is not to sit here and bash Alcoa,” Brockovich said at a briefing that took place before an invitation-only event for state lawmakers at the exclusive Capitol City Club. “Agencies, industries, and attorneys need to get together collectively and do what’s right by people,” she added. “It’s time to … give back, and get united, and fight and get back to having clean water, and a cleaner environment, and hold companies accountable for the messes they’ve made, ask them to clean [them] up, and be protective of public health and safety and welfare.”

The Raleigh event was hosted by Mayor Charles Meeker, whose law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP represents Stanly County; and City Councillor Nancy McFarlane, who formerly headed the North Carolina Water Rights Committee, a nonprofit group that has been lobbying the General Assembly to pass legislation allowing the state to seize Alcoa’s dams and set up an independent Yadkin River Trust to operate them.

Brockovich also was scheduled to give a speech Tuesday evening at Wake Forest University sponsored by the Yadkin Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

The controversy over the dams arose after Alcoa closed an aluminum smelting plant in Stanly County nearly a decade ago, eliminating approximately 900 industrial jobs in an economically stressed region. The dams continue to produce hydroelectric power that Alcoa sells to other providers.

Alcoa’s 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to produce power from the dams expired in 2008. Officials in Stanly County and inside the Easley and Perdue administrations have attempted to block the renewal of that license so that the state could take control of the facilities. Alcoa continues to operate the hydroelectric plants under a temporary license until regulatory issues are settled.

A bill establishing the Yadkin trust passed the state Senate last year but died in the House at the end of the session. The Perdue administration has continued to push for a takeover of the dams. It is unclear whether the legislation will be revived before the short session adjourns.

When asked what she hoped to accomplish with her visit, Brockovich was unable to cite any specific aspects of the legislation.

“I haven’t really looked at the licensing issue,” she said. “It is probably going to be really your state’s issue.”

When a reporter asked what she thought about Alcoa’s contention that seizing the dams and surrounding land would amount to an unconstitutional taking of private property, she said, “I don’t get into eminent domain issues.”

Brockovich said she hoped the bill would pass, “putting money into a trust [so] you can put people to work, you can create green jobs, you can clean up the pollution, and you can put some sense of justice and well-being into a community.”

The trust bill that failed in last year’s General Assembly first would have used funds from power sales to clean up any environmental contamination and increase water retention at the four lakes. Any remaining money would have been divided among a “Power for Jobs” fund established by the state Department of Commerce, the state community college system, and water quality projects in the Yadkin River Basin.

Carolina Journal asked Brockovich if she was compensated for her visit to North Carolina, and if so, how much did she receive and who paid for the trip. “I wouldn’t know” the amount of compensation, she said. “I am here at the request of the Yadkin Riverkeeper. My events are set up through my agency.”

When asked if she were being compensated at her traditional rates, she said, “Yes.”

McFarlane then interjected that the Yadkin Riverkeeper was responsible only for Brockovich’s appearance at Wake Forest University. McFarlane said that she was responsible for the Raleigh appearance and was driving Brockovich to Winston-Salem.

When asked if any money from the City of Raleigh was used for this appearance, McFarlane said no: “This is all personally paid for by me.”

Brockovich’s agency, The National Organization of Professional Athletes and Celebrities Talent Agency, lists the range of fees for booking Brockovich from between $20,001 and $30,000 per appearance. The agency’s website also states that, “In most cases, all expenses are in addition to the fee. Additional expenses can include first class airfare, hotel accommodations, ground transportation, meals, and any out-of-pocket expenses.”

CJ attempted to learn whether Brockovich billed McFarlane and the Yadkin Riverkeeper for two separate appearance charges or only one. A phone call to NOPAC Talent Agency was not returned.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.