News: CJ Exclusives

Uwharrie Commission Stacked with Alcoa Adversaries

Questions arise over role of Yadkin River Project, job of executive director

The General Assembly created the Uwharrie Regional Resources Commission in the final days of the 2010 session with the charge of encouraging economic development and protecting natural resources in the Uwharrie Lakes Region of central North Carolina.

But one member of the commission suggests that the body may have a different purpose: greasing the skids for the Perdue administration’s campaign to operate four hydroelectric dams along the Yadkin River owned by Alcoa Power Generating Inc.

Jason Walser, executive director of the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, notes that a majority of the commission members have gone on the record backing Gov. Bev Perdue’s request for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to deny Alcoa’s license for the dams, enabling the state to take over the project and gain control of thousands of acres of adjacent property.

Indeed, almost every major player in the state’s effort to acquire the dams — excepting Perdue and state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus — made it on the commission, including state Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, state Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Dee Freeman, Stanly County Commissioner Tony Dennis, Chairman of Uwharrie Capital Roger Dick, N.C. Department of Transportation board member Jim Nance, Yadkin Riverkeeper board president Zoe Hanes, and Max Walser, former chairman of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners.

Alcoa operated an aluminum smelting plant in Badin from 1917 until 2002. After the plant closed, the company continued selling electricity generated from the dams to the power grid. The company received a 50-year license to manage the dams and protect the water flowing through them from FERC in 1958; renewal was expected to be a formality, but Gov. Mike Easley intervened to stop the process in 2008.

In 2009, Hartsell introduced legislation establishing the Yadkin River Trust, a public agency that would have operated the dams if the license were not renewed. The bill passed the Senate 44-4 but died in the House. Hartsell revived the legislation last year, which also failed. In the waning hours of the session, however, it was recast, the trust was renamed the Uwharrie commission, and the law passed just before the session adjourned.

One controversial move during the commission’s first meeting Jan. 6 was the nomination of Special Deputy Attorney General Faison Hicks as the commission’s executive director, presumably a full-time paid position. Hicks has provided legal advice to Stanly County commissioners in their efforts to oust Alcoa.

The nomination was put on hold when commissioners Jason Walser and Martha Sue Hall, an Albemarle city councilwoman, questioned whether an executive director was needed or authorized. They also expressed concerns about how the position would be funded, since the commission has no budget from the General Assembly and no independent source of revenues.

Walser told Carolina Journal he thought it was premature for the commission to select someone for a job before the members had defined the executive director’s duties and responsibilities.

Crisco spokesman Tim Crowley said even if Hicks does not become executive director, he will be involved with the commission one way or another, “at least in an advisory function.”

“Faison has been fairly close to the Alcoa issue, so he knows it pretty well,” Crowley said. “They thought he would be a good person to help lead the charge.”

But Walser is concerned about what the commission’s charge is.

“Everybody knows it was created because of the Alcoa situation including myself, and I don’t pretend otherwise, but the goals are so much broader than Alcoa,” Walser said.

He said those goals include economic development, redevelopment of Alcoa’s closed smelter site, bringing in festivals and ecotourism, and improving camping facilities in the Uwharrie National Forest.

Walser’s organization, the LandTrust, supports the renewal of Alcoa’s license. He said Alcoa may not have a perfect environmental record, but says the company built the dams and probably is the most capable of operating them. He said he doesn’t see why Alcoa couldn’t be made to “clean up” the area as a condition of the relicensing agreement.

Walser wants the commission to focus more on creating jobs and protecting the environment and less on who controls the dams.

“We need to do what we were authorized and empowered and charged to do,” he said.

Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood said the Uwharrie Commission is very important to Alcoa and that the company would be “following its activities very closely.”

The commission plans to hold its second meeting in late February, possibly in Davidson County.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.