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Lack of due diligence cited as reason for dam removal protests

The state recently gave Duke Energy the green light to tear down the Dillsboro dam, a move that Jackson County and the town of Franklin are now formally protesting.

Jackson County and Franklin claim the state environmental office erred by issuing Duke a permit to tear down the dam and are seeking a “do over” so to speak. The permit — issued by the water quality division of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources — is supposed to ensure the Tuckasegee River isn’t harmed by dam removal.

The protestors claim the environmental office didn’t perform due diligence in granting the permit and gave Duke preferential treatment while discounting arguments from the public.

The protestors claim tearing down the dam will harm water quality, not just by the physical dam removal itself but because of what its removal represents. Removing the dam will count as environmental mitigation for Duke’s hydropower network across the region. But the protestors claim dam removal doesn’t adequately offset the impacts of Duke’s hydropower operations.

Paul Nolan, the D.C. attorney representing Jackson County and Franklin in the protest, is arguing that the state missed the big picture when granting a permit to tear down the dam.

“Dillsboro is part of a bigger picture,” Nolan said. Nolan accused the state environmental agency of “segmented analysis.” The state should have considered the implications their dam removal permit would have — namely that Duke can go on impacting the rivers with its other dams without providing adequate mitigation, Nolan said.

“When they approved the removal of the Dillsboro dam, they set in motion a substandard mitigation package,” Nolan said. “When you issue the permit with no further mitigation you are telling people it is over. There are no other avenues to request additional mitigation.”

The town of Franklin feels particularly short changed. Duke has a dam straddling the Little Tennessee River at Lake Emory outside Franklin. Duke claims that removing the Dillsboro dam should count as mitigation for its impacts to the Little Tennessee, but Franklin town leaders disagree and would like some mitigation from Duke a little closer to home, according to town manager Mike Decker.

Franklin Alderman Verlin Curtis said the town wants Duke to fix up Lake Emory. The lake is getting silted in and becoming unattractive. The town wants Duke to dredge 10,000 cubic yards of sediment backlogged behind the dam at Lake Emory and to restore the shoreline around the lake, Curtis said.

The state doesn’t get to decide what mitigation Duke must provide — that’s up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. So far, the energy commission has sided with Duke. Jackson County and Franklin hoped to pull an end run around the energy commission by holding up the water quality permit at the state level.

However, the state killed that strategy by granting Duke a water quality permit. Now a protest of the permit is a last ditch effort.

Reporter Jennifer Garlesky contributed to this story.

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