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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

FERC draft OKs for dam removal

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff have recommended removing the Dillsboro Dam and re-issuing Duke Energy licenses for each of its dams along the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee rivers, according to a 402-page draft environmental assessment released May 10.

“After evaluating Duke’s proposal and the recommendations from resource agencies and interested parties, we considered what environmental measures would be necessary or appropriate for continued operations of the projects,” the FERC assessment reads. “Based on this analysis, we recommend licensing the East Fork, West Fork, and Bryson projects as proposed by Duke with some additional staff-recommended measures, and the surrender of the Dillsboro Project with removal of the dam and demolition of the powerhouse.”

However, Jackson County officials say that the fight to keep the dam is far from over.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

The draft environmental assessment is not a final decision and the recommendation to remove the dam is not all that surprising, Westmoreland said.

“Our attorney said this is not atypical,” he said. “The staff often times just simply takes the position of the licensee.”

Duke Energy has called for the removal of the Dillsboro Dam on the Tuckasegee River as a method of fulfilling the company’s mitigation requirements for the re-licensing of its hydro plants. Mitigation measures such as improved river access, recreational water releases from dams, wildlife habitat improvements and sometimes cash settlements are provided to communities in exchange for allowing energy companies to use their water resources for power production.

Duke supports removing the Dillsboro Dam because it will add about 10 miles of unimpeded river for boating, allow for species migration, and enable the company to focus on larger and more efficient hydro stations, according to a statement released by Duke District Manager Fred Alexander.

Critics have spoken out against dam removal, some saying Duke should be forced to dredge the silt that has collected behind the dam. Removing the dam without dredging would cause the silt to wash downstream, potentially harming fish and wildlife.

On the other side, officials with the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Division have criticized the dam for preventing natural migration.

Westmoreland said that Jackson County’s proposed alternative agreement would settle these differences by allowing Duke to get the mitigation points it needs in exchange for turning the dam over to the county to operate as a greenpower source, and installing a passage for fish to allow migration.

“The position that we’ve taken is that we’ve got to evaluate alternatives,” Westmoreland said. “They haven’t in this.”

Also, there is no satisfactory resolution to issues including mitigation, minimum water flow levels and endangered species in the draft environmental assessment, Westmoreland said.

However, in the cover letter to the assessment FERC officials write that these issues have been resolved.

“In this draft EA, Commission staff analyze the probable environmental effects of implementing the projects and conclude that approval of the projects, with appropriate staff-recommended environmental measures, would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” the letter states.

“At this point in time we’ve still got a lot of avenues to contest it,” Westmoreland said.

One such avenue is through the public hearing currently scheduled to be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at the Jackson County Justice Center in Courtroom 2. Notification of the hearing was sent out on May 17; however, Westmoreland said he did not receive notice until May 22, leaving little more than two weeks to wade through the 402-page draft environmental assessment and prepare comments.

Consequently, Westmoreland said the county planned to ask that the hearing be rescheduled and held 30 days after notices first were received. If approved, the new hearing date would be June 24. Also, requested is a 30-day comment period beginning after transcripts of the hearing are published so there is a chance to respond to questions and comments posed during the hearing.

Dillsboro Plant is the smallest of 30 Duke hydro plants, and the second smallest hydro facility in North Carolina licensed by FERC. The dam was constructed by C.J. Harris in 1913 to provide power to his Blue Ridge Locust Pin Factory.

In 1957, Nantahala Power and Light purchased the dam from Dillsboro and Sylva Electric Company, rehabilitated it and returned it to operation the next year. Duke Power purchased Nantahala Power and Light in 1988.

Duke operates projects containing 11 generating plants and 13 dams in its 1,729-square-mile Nantahala Area consisting of Cherokee, Graham, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties.

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