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Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

Hearing heated, but no surprises

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s public hearing regarding the recently released draft environmental assessment of Duke Power’s hydroelectric projects on the Tuckasegee and Oconaluftee rivers held last Thursday (June 8) began quietly enough.

Carol Adams, president of the Friends of Lake Glenville, criticized FERC staff for not weighing local concerns heavily enough in writing the draft EA.

“The local community has, in fact, been ignored,” Adams said.

Hugh Moon concurred, saying he supported the preferred settlement agreement — a document authored by Jackson County officials as a compromise between the original stakeholders agreement reached in 2003 and demands made by those who would not sign the agreement.

The preferred settlement agreement recommends that Duke turn over the Dillsboro Dam to Jackson County to run as a green power resource. Moon encouraged FERC staff not to reward Duke for years of neglecting the dam by allowing the company to tear it down as part of their mitigation plans. Duke has said that the dam is no longer viable and removing the dam would permit the company to focus on hydro plants that generate more electricity.

“Do not allow a profit seeking disposition to destroy our rural way of life,” Moon said.

Anger over the growing corporate mentality in Jackson County carried over for Carl Iobst.

“We the citizens of Jackson County are tired of being scammed and raped by large corporations,” he said to hearty applause.

Jackson County’s attorney hired specifically to fight for the preferred settlement agreement, Paul Nolan, agreed that Duke had run the Dillsboro Dam project “into the ground,” and now was looking to use that to their benefit. Nolan said that throughout the region, “Duke is getting off really cheap.”

However, such emotionally based statements paled in comparison to the fiery speech from the pulpit given by dam removal advocate and fisherman Rady Large. Large — who began a “Free The Tuck” bumper sticker fund-raising campaign that’s currently $200 in the red — appealed to FERC staff members’ regard for nature.

“The Tuckasegee does not belong to me, it does not belong to FERC, it does not belong to any environmental group and it certainly does not belong to Duke,” Large said.

Large questioned the validity of reports that removing the dam would damage the elktoe mussel and brown bat populations — two endangered species — and moved in support of creating the “Elktoe Mussel and Brown Bat Rodeo” further upstream, as a means of conservation.

And how the entire process of reaching an agreement between Duke and the public that would earn FERC approval had been run was indicative of the country’s current leadership under president George W. Bush, Large said — a comment that drew an outburst of laughter from FERC fisheries biologist and senior technical expert Allan Creamer.

Upon being informed that his four-minute comment period was up, Large questioned whether FERC moderator Lee Emory was deputized, and with Emory’s reply “no,” Large refused to step down from the podium. Emory left the courtroom in the Jackson County Justice and Administration Center, presumably to find a sheriff’s deputy, and Large continued on with his speech until an audience member interrupted.

“Hey buddy, I agree with you,” the audience member said, holding up one of Large’s “Free The Tuck” stickers. “But your time’s up.”

With that Large apologized for not being able to stick around for anyone else’s comments that evening and promptly ran from the building.

Throughout the three-hour long hearing, the public comment period generally was more subdued, as nearly 40 speakers each put in their two cents.

Tom Harding said there had been too little time to read over the 402-page draft EA before the hearing, and that the height water levels had to reach before Duke must to notify local governments — twice hurricane level — should be re-examined.

Kevin Killilea asked who was going to ensure that Duke would follow through with its mitigation plans.

TJ Walker, who owns an inn immediately next to the Dillsboro Dam, said he worried about increasing development around the lakes that also serve as Duke’s reservoirs, and that a compromise should be found to share water flows along the upper East and West Forks of the Tuckasegee.

Roger Turner of the WNC Alliance also was concerned about lakeshore development, showing pictures of the growing Centex property at Bear Lake.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Turner said, urging for a stronger shoreline management plan.

Stan Fowlkes stood out as one of few in the standing room only crowd who came out in support of the original stakeholders agreement. A member of the American Canoe Association, Fowlkes said that removal of the dam would open a new stretch of the Tuck to boaters and that arguments that removal would dump sediment downstream are unwarranted. Fowlkes said that studies have shown more sediment goes over the dam during a flood than is currently behind the dam — an amount Duke staff in attendance later identified as approximately 100,000 cubic yards.

Similarly, James Jackson, who owns Tuckaseegee Outfitters, the first rafting company ever established on the river, supported the original stakeholders agreement. Jackson encouraged FERC staff not to cut back on recreational water flows, as now the levels needed for rafting are only available for part of the day on six days each week.

Regardless of which agreement people support, Tom Massie, western field representative of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, said that at least progress has been made.

“We will be better off in Jackson County than we were before,” he said.

The last member of the public signed up to speak was Adam Bigelow, who said that the hearing was his first and that he’d read in the news that it would be his last chance to comment. Many people didn’t know about the relicensing process and the battle with Duke, Bigelow said, and so he just wanted to thank those who were there getting involved.

“You guys are here and that’s what’s important,” he said.

Following the formal comment period, FERC staff asked if there was anyone else to wished to speak and so began a half hour of back and forth between members of the public and FERC staff.

Walker, owner of the inn next to the Dillsboro Dam, asked why FERC staff had not considered the preferred settlement agreement in authoring the draft EA.

“What are you talking about we haven’t considered it?” questioned FERC moderator Emory.

“All of the measures that are included in that preferred settlement agreement were addressed in the EA,” said FERC staff member Creamer. “It just maybe wasn’t packaged the way you would like to see it.”

Staff members explained that they could not refer to the preferred settlement agreement in the draft EA as being a preferred settlement agreement, as such language would imply that it was FERC’s preferred agreement.

FERC staff said that they expect to have the final environmental assessment finished in July, at which point it will be passed on to FERC commissioners to make their ruling.

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