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Duke Energy inches toward new license on Catawba River

Duke Energy has received one more key approval - this time from federal environmental regulators - in its effort to continue operating dams and controlling water flow on the Catawba-Wateree River. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: If things had gone according to Duke's plans, the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the federal government late last week would have been the last domino to topple en route to receiving approval for 50 more years of control on the Catawba River. But Duke didn't count on South Carolina's water quality agency refusing to give its stamp of approval. Now the entire river license renewal project is on hold until Duke decides its next move, and there's a good bet lots of lawyers will be involved. Still, Duke Energy spokesman Andy Thompson says getting the Final Environmental Impact Statement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is encouraging: "We have done a cursory review - it's actually a 670 page document, so it's a very large document," says Thompson. "You know after a cursory review we feel very positive about it. If we require any clarification, we'll certainly seek that from FERC, but we feel pretty positive about it." After taking months of comment from the public, federal regulators basically accepted Duke Energy's original proposal to look after the environment in and around its 13 dams on the river. There are a few extra requirements Duke will have to meet, such as modifying one dam to handle floods better and checking with the National Marine Fisheries Service before making changes to water flow during a drought. Environmental groups applaud those additions, but say Duke should be required to release more water down river for the sake of fish and wildlife: "And truthfully, while one of the driving things are these migratory species of fish, it's certainly an issue for businesses that are down stream and use the water and communities that are downstream and use the water," says Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. The Final Environmental Impact Statement says Duke's water-release plan is enough to keep boaters and homeowners happy on the lakes and Duke's power plants humming, while still serving downstream needs. However, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has now waded into the debate too, saying North Carolina keeps more than its share of the water. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear that argument, which means it could be years before Duke Energy gets its license renewed on the Catawba River.