A disagreement over Duke Energy’s placement of a power substation near Cherokee’s most significant cultural site has instigated a meeting between the top leaders of the tribe and the company.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks, the tribal council, and the attorney general of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are set to meet with Duke Energy Carolinas President James Rogers behind closed doors on Wednesday (Feb. 17) to discuss the issue.
Hicks said he wanted to wait until after the meeting to discuss whether negotiations would involve visual mitigation of the substation or moving the project entirely.
“We want the land protected, and we want the viewshed protected,” Hicks said. “I don’t know where they’re at. Until I sit down with the president and hear where they’re coming from, I don’t want to comment on that.”
The ECBI owns a 309-acre Kituwah mound site, which was historically the tribe’s spiritual and political center. But it does not own the surrounding hillsides where the substation is slated to go.
In November, Duke began bulldozing part of a mountainside tract near the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit off the Smoky Mountain Expressway between Cherokee and Bryson City to prepare for construction of the substation. The mountainside is considered by the Cherokee to be a part of the greater Kituwah mothertown. Should the project move forward, it would mar a viewshed integral to the tribe’s cultural identity.
The EBCI’s tribal council passed a resolution authorizing Principal Chief Michell Hicks to seek outside legal counsel to attempt to prevent Duke from moving forward with the substation and a transmission line expansion near the Swain County site during its meeting on Feb. 4.
Since then, work at the site has continued. Some 15 members of the tribe traveled to the Swain County commissioners meeting last week in order to ask the board to join with the tribe in opposing the Duke project. The commissioners took no formal action.
“We don’t have any ordinance or regulatory authority to cover that,” said Chairman Glenn Jones. “If the Cherokee want to bring a lawsuit or whatever, we told them we would probably be willing to put our name to it.”
Representatives from Duke have said the substation and line upgrade was intended to serve the expanding demand for energy created by the growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Company spokesperson Paige Layne cited a lack of communication over the issue as the point of tension.
“This was not something we initiated to cause harm,” Layne said. “Our goal was to provide energy to our consumer base. I guess the next step is to make sure we’re doing that with the utmost respect to the tribe’s culture.”
Wednesday’s meeting could clear the air, but it could also solidify differences between the tribe and the utility company.
Duke has already expressed its intent to resolve the issue through a plan to mitigate the visual impact of the substation on the mountainside. But the tribal council’s resolution cleared the way for a legal battle that could play out in the form of hearings before the North Carolina Utility Commission.