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Alcoa Seeks To 'Change The Dialogue' In Yadkin River Debate

An Alcoa dam on Badin Lake.
Julie Rose
A Yadkin River dam run by Alcoa. align=left

Alcoa has a new face in North Carolina. A senior executive named Kevin Anton is making the rounds, talking to politicians, supporters, critics and the media in an effort to get Alcoa's Yadkin River relicensing project back on track. Late in 2010, Alcoa's prospects for a new 50-year license on the Yadkin ran into trouble when the state of North Carolina revoked a key certificate. "We haven't been comfortable with the dialogue that's going on here in North Carolina and realized if we didn't change something we're just gonna be stuck in the same dialogue," says Kevin Anton, Alcoa's Chief Sustainability Officer. Anton recently spoke with WFAE's Julie Rose. Kevin Anton is trying to change the dialogue about Alcoa's fight to retain control of four dams on the Yadkin River. But he's not changing the basic message. Alcoa has long argued that state officials including Governor Bev Perdue are trying to strip the company of its private property as they push for Alcoa's hydropower license to be denied. Rose: "Why has Alcoa made such a point of framing this as a 'taking' of property?" Anton: "Well how would you frame it?" Rose: "Well, your opponents frame it as a 'retaking of what is rightfully ours.'" Anton: "Versus that Alcoa is the one who came here and invested in these facilities - invested mightily. Still continues to invest in them. Runs them responsibly. Uh, nowhere in this country has any state, federal, local agency ever taken a hydro dam from anybody." Governor Perdue and other opponents of Alcoa argue the company doesn't deserve to profit from the Yadkin River since it no longer operates the smelter for which the dams were originally built. Electricity from the dams now generates about $10 million in profit for Alcoa each year and the company expects that will to go up over time. But the process has hit rough water. The North Carolina Division of Water Quality recently revoked a crucial water quality certificate when internal Alcoa emails surfaced showing employees discussing how to keep the state in the dark about water quality problems with the dams. Alcoa is appealing the revocation. Anton: "We continue to believe the state was not justified in revoking the certificate. We intend to show them that Alcoa did not withhold any material information or any information at all that they needed to make their decision. That will see the light of day shortly, and as I said, we're confident." Rose: "Did Alcoa employees - past or present - or consultants working for Alcoa withhold any information from the state?" Anton: "No." Rose: "Did not withhold any information?" Anton: "No." Rose: "So in these emails, you know here's Gene Ellis saying the state doesn't know this . . . we need to make sure the state doesn't know this. . . there was not withholding of information going on?" Anton: "What you're seeing there is information out of context. We're having a dialogue. We'll work with the state and show them the full story and as anybody knows you can take one piece of data out of context and draw incorrect conclusions. So let's look at the totality of the record which will come available shortly." Rose: "So you're saying that they - if this is not the full context that . . . Anton: "Yeah, let us have our dialogue with the state instead of doing it in the media. And after we have a chance to talk to the state then we'll talk to the public." What Anton is eager to tell the media is that he's confident Alcoa can meet the water quality requirements of the state - regardless of the emails. Environmental groups say Alcoa's numbers can't be trusted and want the company to pay for an independent study. Anton says Alcoa's critics are trying to change the rules. Anton: "Alcoa is using good science, recognized experts - external to Alcoa, making all the data available and transparent to the state and federal authorities. And when others challenge you how do you ever respond to that when there's other layers? The rules have been established, we follow the rules and then a new hurdle's put in front." Rose: "Do you think Alcoa has played its cards well in this process to obtain a new license?" Anton: "I think Alcoa has followed both the spirit and the letter of the law. We've reached out. We've built a consensus with 23 different organizations. Can you always do things better? Yes. I think the fact that I'm here listening more than speaking says we do want to work on a collaborative solution."